Monday, March 24, 2008

B & J: Conclusion... Or IS it?

Becky commented on the most recent post in the debate.

Comments and response to follow -- but I think we've gotten to the meat of our disagreement and somewhat understand each other's points (I have to say, I don't feel like she completely got mine, but that's what this "Conclusion" is for -- and of course, if she feels like I didn't get hers, it's not really the Conclusion...)

>>I think that even though we agree on nearly every issue, the difference between us is that I believe changing in small ways for the good (e.g., cutting carbon emissions, even if we don't end up cutting enough to advert what is probably certain disaster) is worth doing, rather than doing nothing. So, I'm actually very much for incremental change that helps some people, rather than nothing or more active degradation of the world, etc.<<
I feel rather sure you're not trying to imply that I'm doing nothing, or believe in doing nothing, but that is the implication of how you phrase this. Be that as it may; incremental changes are great! Yay incremental changes! But my question is: do they work? Can they avert disaster? I view this as a scientific question, prone to analysis and evidence. I personally feel that the evidence in this case says "No." However, I don't advise doing nothing -- to the contrary! -- I advise doing more. We, all of us, should be spending more time trying to figure out what and how we can do more to change the political infrastructure around us. Dorian Warren, professor of political science at Columbia and whom I heard speak at the New Left Forum last week, assessed it thus: we spend too much time worrying about the person of the presidency/elective office and not enough on the infrastructure that constrains them. Obama, whether he wanted to or not, cannot go outside of certain constraints and still succeed (Dorian's example was the fact that to be an elected black senator in Illinois, you *have* to be a member of a black church in order to gain the aid of some institution with levers to pull within the political machine -- other ways to access the political machine are largely closed to you. And in Dorian, an African-American, and my opinion, it's simply a fact that many if not most black churches are going to have Rev. Wright-like rhetoric at some point. African American church rhetoric is simply not acceptable to mainstream America.) Anyway, Obama seems to have potentially leapt past this issue for now, but it remains to be seen what happens when he has to make his (admittedly eloquent, moving, and inspired) pitch on getting past race to loads of skeptical centrists and conservatives. ANYWAY, the same machine politics constrain Obama's choices in poverty, GCC, etc. -- so voting for him is inherently unlikely to accomplish the larger goals because it does nothing to change the political infrastructure of the United States.

I'm babbling again, but the basic point is this: a) as I've said, I don't believe the necessary changes are possible given the two-party system; b) there is, practically speaking, zero chance any national Democrat -- or Republican -- will actively help to break the two-party system (and if there were, we should vote for them) and reform into a better system; c) if a and b are true, then it is absolutely necessary that effort on incremental change go, for the large part, towards changing the two-party system!!!, which d) of necessity means *not* supporting Democrats who seem unlikely to do this, which means not supporting most of them.

I hardly think it's hopeless! I think staying within the two parties is hopeless, BUT I do believe it's possible for us, yes, incrementally to get out of this system by taking votes away from Democrats who do not go outside the normal box profoundly. The fact that *others* (including, perhaps, Becky) think that such a change is impossible, or that it would be impossible to do this through the strategy proposed, does NOT mean I advocate doing nothing or disparage incremental change. But history does show us, I believe, that the majority of important changes are drastic, not incremental, and accomplished (in democratic cases) not through presidencies, but through movements and after disasters (and as I've said, if you have a strong movement, the president seems almost irrelevant, i.e. Nixon on civil rights).

>>The only other point I must make is that we are both somewhat on the fringe of American politics and many of the policies we see as requisite are not passed by Dems or Reps because they do not reflect US public opinion.<<
That's the thing! Look at the polls! We are *not* on the fringe. Well, in the specifics perhaps we are. But broadly -- poll after poll after poll shows that people want more action on poverty, GCC, education and less spending on the defense budget. They also say they'd be willing to pay higher taxes for it -- it's the lobbyists, after all, who are most hyped on tax cuts, that's not what the average voter lists first on their list of priorities. The average person in US cares much MORE that their taxes are spent wisely (a difficult thing to do and to convince people you're doing, true) than about lessening taxes. For one example article on American priorities, see this. so I must again emphasize -- the problem is not rooted only or even primarily in the will of the American people, their priorities, or who has the presidency -- it's the system that creates a public that is commonly ignored. (Not to forget -- many, many Americans don't vote -- isn't it possible, just *possible* that a candidate who *really* seemed different would attract these predominately poor and minority voters? Isn't it likely that a politician who *would* have stood up in the scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 would do more to singly effect change in the US than several democratic presidents?)

What we are on the "fringe" of would be religious beliefs and civil rights, generally -- gays, guns and abortion as they say. Important issues, but also issues likely best addressed outside of a two party system.

>>I think you may be right about the current war funding, but when I hear people talk about it, I get the feeling that if Congress did step in and decrease funding in any way for the troops, they would lose all hope of re-election, which as politicians they certain don't want.<<
Considering that a) anecdotal evidence is unreliable and b) people quite certainly wanted more than the Democrats delivered (re-authorizing FISA for fuck's sake?), I don't find this convincing. Besides which, we can hardly admire Obama for his boldness in taking on the race discourse in a challenging way but condone him or his colleagues lacking exactly this boldness, innovation, or honesty on the war. And I really, truly don't believe that no one is clever enough to construct a way to change war funding that could be played as *directly beneficial* to the troops. The fact that the Republicans would gnash teeth and wrench hair no matter what just means that one may as well do *something real* rather than pitiful tokenism, which defintively ALSO makes people lose confidence in Congress.

>>this discussion. My basic point is that I don't see Nader as doing anything to truly help the cause of having alternatives to the two major parties, and perhaps he could do a lot more as a senator (had he been one in 2000, he could have stopped the coronation, like you said)<<
Well, for one thing, one of his points is that Congresspeople have a, what, 98% re-election rate? It's almost impossible to break in until someone dies. And even then, you need support from the Rahm Emmanuels of the Democratic elite, who, for example, seem to have encouraged supporting Dennis Kucinich's opponent in the Cleveland Democratic Primaries as punishment for Kucinich defying their desires to drop impeachment bills. This is not just notable because it was a punishment for DK; it would've been at least a mild punishment for the Dems themselves by losing the 12 years seniority DK had. 12 years is no Conyers, it's true, but if I recall the House puts some weight on seniority, and a freshman Congressperson from an incumbent district does indicate some loss of aggregate power. Nader, even if he had the temperament or charisma to run for Congress (which I will readily admit he doesn't, nor for president) would likely not make it past the gatekeepers.

>>or running for something other than President every four years.
Well, I could agree with you here, but the point of my strategy is not actually Nader, though he does make my strategy more tolerable. My historical-analysis based strategy is to avoid the "necessary" socioecological disaster that will bring about change by causing an electoral break large enough to shift the US political system. I'm fine with doing this incrementally -- and to me, part of this incremental fight is cashing out of the Democratic party (until and unless some candidate runs that I *substantively agree with at least in part on issues of empire, not just traditional issues* -- Obama's threatened bombing of Pakistan or Iran represent quite unacceptable variations from this to me, among others). I enjoy Nader because I can vote *for* him; I could take the tactic of some friends and very knowledgeable colleagues and write-in someone else, anyone else. I could take the implicit tactic of the poor here in the US and the explicit tactic of the poor and their supporters and liberals in many other countries and purposefully not vote at all, in protest. I prefer, though, to stand for something rather than just against.

I may consider voting for Obama this year, since, as I said, to my thinking failing is still failing, whether or not you tried half-assedly. I don't think presidential elections are the road to important change (for what it's worth, Dorian Warren, a bona fide political scientists, seemed to back this up in his analysis). Given that attitude, voting for O for the symbolic value of a black president and to appease my Dem friends is relatively low-cost as an individual act. But just as I have spent a *lot* of time considering Obama (if not as much as I should've I suppose), I would ask that my friends and colleagues at arms spend some time researching the history, evidence, arguments that compose my views. One quite certainly doesn't have to be a political scientist to achieve political savvy -- but one does have to study, just as one would study a science. And I guarantee you, historical analysis can be done by college-educated non-political scientists -- and even non-college-educated non-scientists! I really want to be clear that I mean this earnestly: supporters of incremental change, of ANY change, really need to make an effort to do this, BUT those of us with jobs in the "sitting-and-thinking" sector have, I think, a special obligation to do so. Avoiding this obligation to be informed and versed in history and politics is, I think, to block the very change we wish to be in the world. (I'm not accusing you of doing this, Becky -- of avoiding obligation; this is general soap-boxing writ large, especially brought out by some recent conversations I've had here at UM.) --J


Becky T said...

Conclusions...I'm not trying to convince you to vote for Obama (or Clinton or McCain) any more than I think you're trying to get me to vote for Nadar. I will admit that I've focused more on Obama's willingness to talk to Cuba, Iran, and other supposedly dangerous countries than on his willingness to go after Osama Bin Ladan if he's hiding out in Pakistan and no one there is doing anything about it. Compared to McCain singing a song about bombing Iran, Obama looks pretty anti-war.

J said...

You're correct, and I don't see it in that light either (of convincing each other about specific candidates). I see it much more as a difference in our motivating political/electoral theories and strategies.

That said, I'm still not clear what you would define as the long-term strategy represented by voting for Democrats -- which, after all, is what I focused on in my post, the Dems as an institution, not as candidates. There's certainly plenty of reason to disbelieve my analysis and conclusions, but I really do want to hear from someone of your thoughtfulness what the next steps of Dem-aligned progressive strategy are in the medium and long-term time horizons, and what the guessed likelihood of their success is. I've mapped out my theory to the medium term and implied I see a low but important chance of success, and I would deeply like to understand what the comparative analysis is from those who support the Dems.

It'd make for a fantastic postscript...