Tuesday, July 31, 2012

If we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now

The following video is of the speech by the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the current President of the North Carolina NAACP Convention, addressing the national NAACP convention right after presumptive GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on July 11th, 2012.

More about Rev. Barber, an evangelical Christian who supports increased government assistance of the poor and rights of the LGBT community, can be found in this piece on Daily Kos (which also features a far-right evangelical reverse mirror image of Rev. Barber with the same last name). Rev. Barber, steeped in the civil rights movement and the struggle for the poor, is quite adamant about the importance of voting in the 2012 election.

By contrast some claim that because Democrats aren't sufficiently liberal and progressive, and because President Obama isn't bold enough politically or because supports practices such as drone strikes in places like Pakistan, it is better to vote outside of the two-party monopoly for a choice such as the Green Party. Others suggest it is better to protest the electoral process altogether and abstain from voting. The end result is either case in a close election in which President Obama would likely be defeated, which some of the President's former supporters have openly called for.

The problem with the view represented and espoused by individuals such as Professor Roberto Unger in the above linked article is two-fold.

First it underestimates the impact of  a politically emboldened and empowered GOP under the influence of the Tea Party and the moneyed interests unleashed by Citizens United. Second, it makes unlikely assumptions about what should or could happen to the Democratic Party after an Obama defeat. Given Professor Unger's clear disapproval of and distaste for the policies of the current incarnation of the Republican Party, it is odd that Unger thinks the consequences of their political ascendance will simply be a cost in judicial and administrative appointments, with little difference in the use of the US military abroad.

That does not accord with the GOP's strongly held and pushed views on either domestic or foreign policy or the collection of advisers gathering around Mitt Romney. There is a much higher potential cost that Unger, and those for whom he speaks, are admitting in the video "Beyond Obama".

The potential consequences of a GOP victory in 2012

For the purposes of summarizing why this is so and other criticisms of the position outlined by Unger in his video, let us assume sympathy with his concerns, whether or not you actually agree with them: The current political system is too invested in funding for election campaigns which have become practically perpetual in nature. The Democratic Party has become too comfortable with the status quo of favoring large corporations, the financial industry, and outrageous defense spending over caring for the poor and powerless and empowering an equitable and innovative economy, or at least is too timid in challenging this status quo. New ideas and models for governance and the social contract are required for a just and sustainable society.

According to progressive and liberals in the United States, implementing the GOP's policies for taxation, for privatizing social security, for cutting the social safety nets, deregulating industry and banking, gutting or eliminating federal departments with oversight in education and environmental protection, vastly increasing military spending, and so forth would be a disaster for ordinary citizens, the poor, the economy, the environment, and the future of the nation. Given how insistent and strident the GOP's leaders in attempting to advance this agenda are while only controlling the House of Representatives, and how they have leveraged their position to get so much of what they wanted from a Democrat controlled Senate and Presidency, what exactly do people such as Unger think will happen if they regain the White House?

Now, remember, we are assuming here at least for the sake of argument that the progressive view of current conservative policies is correct. So how does giving the GOP the White House, with a strong chance to gain control in the Senate (if not in 2012 then in 2014 with President Romney using the bully pulpit), sound like no significant difference compared to re-electing Obama? Keep in mind that the person who hold the office of the Presidency from 2013 to 2016 will have a good shot at nominating one or two people to the Supreme Court, a decision that will influence the direction of the country for decades. If Romney wins in 2012 and is re-elected in 2016, it is virtually certain he will be seeing at least one of his selections sitting on the bench of the highest court in the land.

 That would give an unshakeable majority to the conservative wing of the Supreme Court, which has made rulings in recent years about which progressives and liberals are either enraged or despaired. This isn't just any lost opportunity for a judicial nomination or appointment, and the effects of such an outcome would be far-reaching and long-lasting, even assuming that one could for that price start a progressive revolution in the Democratic Party and see that party in control of the White House and Congress within the next decade. More on the likelihood of that kind of sudden and sweeping reform in the Democratic Party in a moment.

If progressives and liberals are right, then GOP victories in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government would have immediate and long term detrimental effects not only the citizens of the United States but to people in other parts of the world affected by US trade policies, (lack of) participation in treaties on issues such as climate change and worker's rights, and US military intervention. Let's talk some specifics.

What of those who would be harmed?

Progressives claim that proposed GOP policies would weaken social security, a program upon which many senior citizens rely. They point to reductions in the effectiveness and coverage of Medicare and Medicaid, which affects the elderly and the poor. They focus on other assistance programs such as SNAP, HUD, and job training centers and claim that they are more crucial than ever in times of economic crisis and stress, yet these programs are also targeted by the GOP for their version of reform, which typically involved privatization, reduction, or elimination. And then there is the Afforable Care Act.

There are plenty of progressive critics of the ACA who are incensed that it didn't go far enough by failing to create a public universal health care system or at least offering a public option for those who wanted to opt out of private for-profit health coverage. Yet it does expand coverage for many people, whether this is in the form of offering coverage to those who previously had none or removing caps and loopholes that effectively denied coverage for those who are already insured. These kinds of changes, however inadequate they may be, have already begun to have a positive impact on the lives of those who would otherwise lack adequate care without those changes. More will be covered as the law continues to be implemented.

Unless, of course, a GOP controlled White House (and at least a partially GOP controlled Congress) manages to block, defund, or repeal part of all of the ACA while implementing their economic solution of austerity for all but military spending, corporate welfare, and the wealthiest citizens. This is how progressives see the GOP agenda, and they are appalled by it. They claim that this agenda amounts to supporting the most powerful individuals and institutions at the expense of everything and everyone else with the false promise that their success will eventually benefit the rest of society. Now whether all of the dire predictions of the liberals and progressives would come true is open for debate, but again we are assuming that this will be the case.

Those who would be most immediately and directly harmed by such a scenario would be the most vulnerable in our society. This isn't about theory and new visions to them. It is about the current everyday situation that they must navigate here and now, not in some more idyllic future. And hard economic times have made the working and (what we think of as) the lower to average middle classes more vulnerable than before, with medical bankruptcy, default on mortgages and student loans, and similar disasters hanging over their heads at the next turn of misfortune. According to liberals, they along with the poor are the ones with the most to gain in some new progressive populist movement, yet they also have the most to risk, to lose, and to endure for the sake of generating such a movement by way of allowing the current incarnation of the Democratic Party to collapse.

 As for the use of the military, Mitt Romney has affirmed his support of Israel bombing Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program and the Romney campaign has in its orbit foreign policy advisers who lobbied unsuccessfully to get President George W. Bush on board with the idea of bombing Iran. Again, in progressive circles this kind of action is seen as a would-be diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian nightmare that would set back reformers and moderates in Iranian politics for decades and generate increased hostility toward the US by various Middle Eastern nations. The possibility of a new regional war directed against Israel and the implications of Russian involvement in the region are also among the potential fallout. If you accept a progressive view on foreign policy regarding that region of the world, to say there is little or no potential difference between an Obama and a Romney presidency makes little sense, as Obama has followed Bush's lead of alternative methods of containing Iran's development of nuclear technology (including cyber warfare) in order to explicitly avoid direct military conflict with Iran.

These are the kinds of dangers and sacrifices that, if popular progressive and liberal voices are to be believed, the United States could face if the current incarnation of the GOP gains political capital and the offices through which to spend it. The question here isn't whether this is accurate or alarmist, because it appears that progressives such as Unger believe it to some degree. The question is whether, believing that these are genuine risks, there is a significant chance of sufficiently beneficial political change and reform to warrant an attempt to implode and subsequently rebuild the Democratic Party as the political wing of a populist progressive movement.

What gain will such sacrifices bring?

So what is the desired outcome of seeing defeats for Democratic candidates in 2012 and 2014? (I mentioned 2014 because it may take more than one bad election cycle by a major party to have a profound effect on its base and on its currently elected officials.) A grassroots movement to challenge the incumbent party bosses and to remake the Democratic Party in a more progressive image? What might that look like, and how effective would it be?

Going back to archives of 2008, how long do you think it would take to find people in the GOP suggesting it might be better to lose the election than to have McCain succeed in becoming President of the United States? And not just because some saw him as too moderate or because it was becoming clear that the next President would preside over an economic horror show, but also because it would give the base a chance to reorganize itself and move the party toward a more (neo-)conservative foundation? (According to Google, about 0.43 seconds.)

And having temporarily lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in addition to the White House, did such a reorganization occur which had power to influence the outcomes of primary and general elections on a national stage? Sort of.

The Tea Party (or Tea Parties) emerged in the wake of Obama's electoral victory and began voicing standard conservative talking points from Fox News pundits and right-wing radio personalities with urgency. It wasn't just enough for the elected members of the Republican Party to endorse these positions generically in rhetoric and compromise in practice. Republican politicians were expected to endorse the complete catalogue of talking head conservatism with full-throated enthusiasm but to be uncompromising in their pursuit of these policy goals. Tea Party activists threatened and carried through in running primary opponents to GOP office holders deemed insufficiently committed to the cause. Many Tea Party affiliated candidates won their primaries, and a good number went on in their conservatives districts to win in the general election of 2010.

There is speculation by political columnists and cable infotainment programs that some in the traditional GOP leadership are simultaneously intimidated by and frustrated with the Tea Party movement. While it energized their base in the 2010 elections, it has also made negotiation and compromise, which are essential unless you have one party control of government, exceedingly difficult. And there are other complications. Some Tea Party endorsed candidates appear to have cost the GOP elections they had expected to win, especially in the Senate. There is the (sometimes not so) subtle element of racism in some Tea Party circles, with President Obama, his religion, and his birth certificate at the center of it. There is the casual and inappropriate use of "Marxist", "Socialist", and "Muslim" as smears against anyone who disagrees with the Tea Party agenda. And there is the increasing pressure on GOP politicians at the national level to not overtly challenge what would have previously been considered fringe conspiracy theories unworthy of serious statesmen and stateswomen.

There is also the question of whether the Tea Party and its preferred configuration of the GOP is sustainable. Will it last as a serious political force? Might the perceived extremism of some of who use the Tea Party label generate blow-back in future election cycles? And what would happen to its momentum of anger and discontent if Obama and the Democrats in Congress lost power? In what direction might the Tea Party go then, and in what form? What will be the long term impact of the Tea Party movement on American politics? Its continued relevance and influence is not assured.

And is that what some progressives and liberals are looking for? Their own version of an fed-up populist uprising to challenge Democratic Party leadership and to threaten elected Democrats with primaries as punishment for insufficient ideological purity? Surely the primary is in fact a major way for the rank and file to express their dissatisfaction with and to run alternatives against a party's status quo, and in principle there is nothing wrong with having progressives mount a Tea Party-like challenge against their own incumbents. However, there was no such progressive challenger to Obama, which only leaves the choice as between Obama and Romney.

Was the lack of a challenge to Obama a fear of aiding the GOP nominee? Or because the Democratic Party flexed its political muscle and stifled dissent? Was it because Democrats still trust Obama, or that progressive just didn't have the energy, enthusiasm, or numbers to get such challenge rolling? None of these possibilities suggest a progressive movement that currently has the strength or the will to mount a take-over of the Democratic apparatus. Perhaps there is a sense that a Romney presidency will have the same affect on liberals that the Obama presidency had on conservatives, yet liberals already had such a chance after eight years of Bush and six years of a GOP dominated Congress.

Where is the progressive revolution?

Moreover, if there was a large, motivated, and committed pool of progressive-minded or liberal-sympathetic citizens out there just waiting for national party with a highly progressive platform to get behind, why hasn't the Green Party been a serious contender, especially during or after the Bush years? In 2000 Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader garnered only 2.7% of the vote despite an opening left by the two major party candidates. In 2004 the Greens ran David Cobb who fared worse than Nader had despite Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and two new deadly wars in play. In 2006 the Greens lost their only member of Congress as well as (minority) party status in Pennsylvania. The 2008 Green Party candidate for President, Cynthia Mckinney, was also unable to come close to matching Nader's 2000 election results, receiving less than 0.5% of the vote.

The nominating process for the 2012 Green presidential candidate involved a debate at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco between comedienne Roseanne Bar and eventual nominee Jill Stein via the internet. The broadcast was delayed by some technical problems and at least early on listed less than two hundred live viewers. This is not knock on the Green Party or its supporters. There were serious issues being discussed in that web broadcast regardless of national media attention or high end publicity and polish. But that's just it. It was free and open to anyone with access to the internet, both live and in recorded formats, discussing problems and solutions that resonate with progressive minded citizens. So where were they? I don't know what the final tally of individual viewers of the San Francisco debate was, but would anyone be surprised if it was far less than a re-run on basic cable?

The Tea Party gained national attention as a vocal part of the disaffected GOP base. The Occupy movement gained similar attention as large and visible protest. It is possible to get national media coverage of your rallies or grievances if enough people are involved and make enough of a fuss. There simply hasn't been a large enough outcry for a progressive political movement in the United States outside of the standard structures and figures of the Democratic Party. Those who are fed up with that party and its operation haven't as yet gained the necessary traction, by motivation or numbers, to win over the party, even in the midst of potential post-electoral defeat soul searching. 

Ironically, a major difficulty in reform also comes from the party's embeddedness in the very political system that is supposed to underlie its inability or unwillingness to adopt a more firmly progressive program. That suggests that the reform of the Democratic Party, if it is to be desired and achieved, cannot solely come from within in its own internal processes. The idea that the Democratic Party will spontaneously undergo a seriously liberal-minded reform or open itself willingly to some fundamentally progressive overhaul because Barack Obama loses to Mitt Romney doesn't make sense.

Perhaps a progressive counter-part to the Tea Party might arise, but whether or not that would help or hinder the success of Democrats in national elections is difficult to predict. Moreover, that kind of progressive insurgency, should there be the necessary interest and activism to achieve such a thing, in and of itself would not automatically change the environment in which major parties have to play in order to be competitive. And what of those people that progressives are certain would suffer under a more conservative administration?

It isn't particularly clever or original, but if one takes the progressive Democrats' critique of the GOP's current brand of conservatism as well as of their own party's shortcomings seriously, simply allowing the GOP to gain additional influence and control over national policy and governance appears to be a non-starter. How many times would the party have to fall on the sword of its higher principles to get the required attention of its leaders or to replace them with more committed progressives? What would that do to the party's image, its donor-pool, and its ability to compete effectively in national elections? And what of those poor, powerless, and disenfranchised who would be relying on the conservative vision of what is best for the nation? Are these progressives serious in their concern for the dangers that current GOP policy purportedly poses to these people, or is this just rhetoric bandied about by highly educated intellectuals who are largely insulated from the effects of such policy?

Taking a stand

There seem to be two primary roads to choose other than complacency and resignation for progressive Democrats who are seriously dissatisfied with their party but who choose to remain within it. So if you count yourself in that number, these options are intended for you.

One is to truly protest. And this is not just aimed at people already out of work, or people who are college-age and don't have as much to risk, and so on. I mean all of you 30 and 40 and 50 and 60 somethings who have good jobs, who have homes, who have plenty of creature comforts and sip a glass of wine or a bottle of imported beer while watching the latest broadcast of The Rachel Maddow Show or Democracy Now! Refuse to cooperate with the current corporate-political system as unjust. Put your feet and your rear where your mouth is, walk out of work, and join or start your own local movement in solidarity with groups like Occupy. Yes, you have pets or actual children or maybe even grandchildren, and bills, and people will think you are lazy, or crazy, or irresponsible, or scary, just like the destitute and the working poor you claim to care so much about. So stand or march or sit in solidarity with them, allowing the system you criticize to really take notice of you, with you having to try to figure out how to keep it all together with the others who join you.

Can you imagine it? Thousands of soccer moms, lawyers, delivery drivers, college professors, nurses, elementary school teachers, middle aged home-owners, and senior citizens just refusing to go to work or to engage in conspicuous consumption? People coming together to start local gardens and to form co-ops to produce or trade for essential items? Can you picture large portions of cities and towns just picking a week, or two weeks, or a month and refusing to budge until a real national dialogue was started? And yes, it would be scary. What if you lost your home? What if bill collectors started harassing you? What if you ran low on resources and weren't sure how you were going to feed yourself or your dependents without charity and solidarity from the larger community? Oh, you mean like the poor and working class who already have to deal with this and who, according to you, committed progressive, would have it worse if conservative austerity measures were implemented under a conservative administration?

This is the direct method. If even one average or upper middle class family or person in a small city did this, it would get attention. People would want to know what was so important to risk a salary and a home for. If a dozen such households did it, friends and family and relatives would have to take notice and get involved, even if to criticize their loved ones. If whole neighborhoods in multiple towns and cities did it across the nation did it, even for a few weeks, it would shake the pillars of the political parties. To actually express real, costly, conviction beyond traditional "safe" limits and boundaries, to actually take a real risk in taking a stand, this will get the attention of those who run and who benefit most from the current political and economic systems and will either shame or inspire those leaders who claim to be committed to social justice and progressive reform to serious action.

Within and without

I will assume that for most "comfortable" progressives, it is impossible and ridiculous to even contemplate such a thing, to invite potential financial ruin and public scandal, in order to resist the systems that you call evil, inhumane, and corrupt. It's a perfectly understandable reaction. The courage of ones convictions often do not extend as far as we might like to imagine, especially not when it involves a risk to oneself. Which is why I mentioned there were two ways forward.

The alternative is to get involved both within the party and with movements outside of it. To take the time and funds intended for that new flat screen TV or those adorable shoes you saw online and use those resources supporting groups that call attention to the problems you are trying to confront. There are those who have a lot less, who work longer hours for less pay, and in between that and raising children still find ways to volunteer and otherwise support the organizations in which they truly believe. It doesn't require being obnoxious or sending twelve petitions a day through social media. It means actually using face time and phone time to give people a glimpse of a real person who lives what they believe, who isn't looking to pick a fight, and who isn't ashamed of their positions or afraid of being mocked or ridiculed for holding them.

This can of course include classic protests with signs and banners. It can include letters to the editor and letters to social media giving a personal, authentic perspective rather than canned and recycled political rhetoric from a pundit or politician. It can include politely and positively stating your views when a relevant topic comes up around friends and family without condescension or a goal of converting them to your own way of thinking. It can involve looking up groups that support those who you feel are being treated unjustly and going to their meetings even though you are not one of them and nor have friends or relatives who are one of them either. Most importantly, whatever form it takes, it must be on a face to face personal level and it must be a commitment.

By starting or supporting such movements independent of the degree of involvement of a political party, you are helping to build support and consensus for change, sometimes among people you might have assumed would never agree to your cause. When enough people start making it clear that public sentiment on an issue is shifting, it is then that politicians really become interested and will move to incorporate the movement's values into their party platforms. This can be seen in the recently announced plan to adopt support for marriage for members of the GLBT community as part of the Democratic Party's 2012 platform.

This path does not exclude working within the party. To use the previous example, after Vice President Biden endorsed marriage equality, President Obama followed suit, and this in turn sparked more people to consider and agree with the policy. There is still room and a need for leadership within the party. There is also a need to make the most out of the party and its apparatus despite its flaws, whether this involves making advances in policy and laws, holding on to gains, or trying to slow reversals. Those who are supposed to be depending on liberals and progressives to speak and vote on their behalf don't disappear just because you are unhappy or dissatisfied with a candidate or party official.

This same logic can of course be applied to the GOP and to conservative-minded voters as well, because it speaks to overcoming complacency and cynicism. Either you really believe the rhetoric you endorse or you don't, and you are either willing to go through the ups and downs of struggling toward the convictions embedded in that rhetoric or you are not. The issues may be complex, but this basic truth about what you believe and how strongly you believe it is not. If the system is really too broken for regular political action, then go back to the first option and take a radical stand. If there is a still a chance to use that system to reform itself, then vote and get as many other people to vote with you. Because if we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now.
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  1. Excellent article Dave. I agree with you. I think the protest vote is worse than throwing your vote away. The first time I voted I was so carried away with the thrill of the vote I wasted my senate vote on Che Guevara as a write-in and I've always regretted it. Even though it was on the news locally "Che got one vote from someone in Dallas country." But so what? It accomplished nothing.

    The danger of having a Republican president is devastating. Much more than just supreme court, although that is a travesty. It's all the environment scuttling of policy and the total erosion of civil rights.

    When we look back at the devastation of Bush and Reagan and the first Bush it was just horrible how the progressive land scape receded. We can't afford another republican presidency.

  2. So you are publicly admitting now that it was you? When was this? 1966? 1968?

  3. ahahahaah I was first able vote in I think the election where Carter won presidency, 76?

  4. A number of my Republican relatives are saying they're going to vote for Ron Paul. In this case, I hope they do!

  5. If we really valued increased voter participation, we would make it a national holiday. Someone needs to write a piece on that.