Presidential horse race: ch-ch-ch-changes?
Some of you may have noticed that we're knee deep in the so-called "political season." Yes, that's right, that’s when us ordinary folks are invited into debates about the issues of the day. Does this mean Warren Buffet’s attempts to stabilize the bond market house of cards? The US Navy’s clumsy attempt to manufacture a threat from Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz (through which almost all the world’s petroleum reaches market? Nope, it’s a presidential election year, and the main item on the menu is ChangeTM. Eager consumers of ChangeTM should be thrilled to learn it’s available in both Regular and Diet versions. Which version of ChangeTM do you like best? Check it out:
But seriously, as fun and tempting as it can be to mock the electoral season as a coping strategy, we’ve gotta face the fact that many of our co-workers, neighbors, families, and classmates already have tickets to the horse-race and are going to be gripping their seats even tighter in the coming months, squinting at the track. So what does the Left – broadly defined as those of us who orient towards building social movements with long-term, transformative s vision – make of this? I should note here that I began writing this article as an exploration of Cynthia McKinney’s campaign at the beginning of January, and have since been sidelined by other commitments. The unfortunate thing about procrastination is that as the world changes, you’ve gotta keep going back and changing what you wrote. So I am kicking myself to finish, this afternoon, and be done with it! I’ll also preface by adding that this is my personal opinion – Solidarity is working on a front-page feature on the prospects for independent politics in 2008 that will be the product of our collective deliberation.
During this time, two socialists – one in an organization, one independent – have written perspectives which deserve a response. I hope to take up the arguments, which I have serious problems with, presented by both of these comrades - not as an attack, but as part of an ongoing conversation.
Stan Goff, who I respect immensely as a writer and antiwar activist, wrote a disappointing endorsement of far-right populist Ron Paul. Then, yesterday, Jamala Rogers - who I respect immensely as both a community activist and as a national leader of the Black Radical Congress and Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organizacion Socialista del Camino para Libertad (whew!) authored a piece called "The Electoral Dilemma." Jamala gave a great presentation this summer at the US Social Forum during a session co-sponsored by several revolutionary organizations, including Solidarity and Freedom Road.
Stan Goff hinges his endorsement of Ron Paul on two political arguments. First, none of the Democratic candidates will end the occupations. This is clearly correct based on their words and actions while in office. Second, the Left should orient to this election cycle on a single issue: doing whatever possible to end those occupations. This dangerous road imagines we can separate the United States' "foreign" and "domestic" policies, which are really two sides of the same coin. Even more importantly, this argument is based on Stan’s hypothetical "President Paul."
Well, we should be clear that there’s no way in hell Ron Paul is going to get elected president. The Left would do better to deal with the reality of the "Paul presidential campaign" - which at its base is populated by closeted and open white supremacists, right-wing conspiracy nuts, Christian fundamentalists, and other fun characters. I
at MLK Parade??
Jamala's statement, I think, errs in the opposite direction in two important ways. First, her article emphasizes the importance of reforms in this country while largely remaining silent on the occupations, aside from a vague suggestion that a Democrat "may influence whether and when the US withdraws." We heard the same argument from other voices back in 2006, regarding congress, and I'd like to see the "influence!" Strong military presence in the Mid-East is absolutely central to US Imperial strategy at this point: not something a mere (D) in the oval office will have an impact on.
The Democrats and Republicans are equally committed to capitalism and imperialism. During the decades of US domination following World War II, Democrats have tended to be more inclined towards military force than Republicans, though not always to building up the military. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Georgia boy Jimmy Carter and the architect of US Central Command, is a key endorser of Obama. Defense contractors jumped the sinking Republican ship to vote with their bucks and become a major donor to the Clinton campaign.
Given its declining economic power, the US military occupation of the world's oil supply is vital to maintaining the standing of the United States as the world's boss. There is no "exit strategy" that would not hurt US imperialism far more than the Democrats would like. Of course, another issue is at stake
However, lacking a real alternative, some socialists and other leftists have, since the 1930s, attempted to enter a "tactical alliance" with the Democrats. The reasons for this vary from a strategy of breaking the supposed political hegemony of the "ultra-right" Republican Party to an argument that’s sort of the negation of my own issue with Ron Paul: Looking at the social base of the Democratic Party, we find our own communities, and those of our friends! African-Americans, still one of the most politically unified voting blocks, overwhelmingly get behind Democrats. Union members and even the unorganized working class less so, but likewise. Women also tend towards Democrats. The environmental and other social movements have also largely been sucked up by the Democrats.
One of Jamala Rogers’ ideas for the Left is to involve ourselves with Clinton, Obama, or Kucinich – “where most progressive and left-leaning forces find themselves” – and push the campaigns left. But this orientation and struggle has been tried for decades, only leading to social movements getting further stuck in the swamp of the Democratic Party! When you see your friends flailing around in quicksand, the answer is not to jump in after them... While the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson 1980s presidential campaigns had inspiring elements, I’m wondering why this is still upheld. It failed to build a lasting non-electoral movement or push the Democrats to the left or even stood in the way of Ronald Reagan or Bush I's election - the "spoiler" argument often deployed against the Green Party.
So, I’m now at a point where I can give my own two cents. First, a disclaimer: I think we need to be very humble about the impact of the radical Left in this day and age. The programmes or endorsements of small, socially isolated left organizations, whether for Democrats or Greens, are nowhere near decisive in the country’s political alignment! This does not mean we should stop doing the best work we can – by linking existing social movements, introducing anti-racist, feminist and anti-imperialist analysis, and contributing to new organizing. But we should see our activity mainly in the context of trying stuff out, learning lessons, and planting theoretical, strategic and organizational seeds.
There are two potential hiccups that should be acknowledged. The first is that, in the event both Barack Obama and Cynthia McKinney win their parties' nominations, her support might wither and she would face extreme pressure to step back from the race. (Personally, I think it's unlikely that they'll let Obama get the nomination.) Even barring an Obama candidacy, it's also possible that the general pressure to "get over the last eight years" will limit McKinney's reach. However, I think it is definitely too soon to make any predictions! Either way, I think the left should remain committed to supporting McKinney; but the level of priority might need to be measured.
However, we can't be idealists as we evaluate these limitations. Commitment to building a socialist movement – or any of its component parts – does not wait for an ideal situation following the appropriate strategic discussion. And the left is involved in plenty of marginal issues! Shit, the organized labor movement is in the single-digits in Georgia and I hope no socialist would say “Let’s wait for a real workers’ movement to get involved with this” or accuse leftists in the ranks, officialdom, or staff of organized labor guilty of “just trying to make ourselves feel good.” I am totally on board with Jamala’s closing question:
“At what point does the US Left begin to look down the road 5-20 years and commit itself to a strategy that is focused on a major intervention with the objective being winning electoral office for a progressive bloc?”
For me, the seeds of that intervention come from getting involved with the best opportunity that we’ve had in decades, building it, and learning valuable lessons in the process. I see no other way to begin that journey.