This piece is for independent egalitarian “left” non-Democrats and the people who love us. It’s about how we can do a better job talking to Democrats who are pissed off at us about rejecting their program and their president. It’s about how much of our current articulation of the problem with the Democratic Party is hyperbolic and alienating. It suggests perhaps a better way–maybe requiring more patience, but hopefully with a better payoff.
This isn’t really a theoretical piece. I may try to explain my perception of alternative politics, but I wouldn’t be trying to say any of what I’m trying to say if I didn’t have several versions of this conversation every week, with real people, real good people, on both sides. I’m less concerned about being right than in finding a way to have a real, constructive discussion with left Democrats.
Most left criticism of the Democratic Party proceeds from the axiom that the Democrats are “the other capitalist party,” at best capitalism–and imperialism–with a human face, full of dastardly leaders bamboozling progressives, full of not-so-progressive centrists and weak-kneed liberals too, basically a bad and harmful sociopolitical entity in spite of its occasional working class rhetoric. Like many arguments, it’s the iteration, not necessarily the substance of the message, that keeps progressives inside the Democratic Party from desiring a meaningful dialogue with those on the outside—a dialogue that ought, ultimately, to replace the Democrats’ fixation on dialoguing (and usually just arguing) with Republicans.
In some ways, this is a basic question about the foundations of political orientation, and the shortcuts we take by ignoring differences within and among those foundations. Even if the Democratic Party essentially accepts the foundations of capitalism and imperialism, it’s a reformist party nevertheless, which means its members are motivated differently than Republicans. The difference in rhetoric between the two parties is not meaningless, self-explanatory, or disingenuous. The Democratic Party captures people of relatively good social conscience for a reason. The GOP trades more on resentment and reactionary attitudes for a reason. The two may be fighting a false battle, but the Democratic Party is a “progressive” party within the confines of the material arrangements that contain it. And that observation is already more mature than jokes by Ralph Nader about how quickly both parties kneel to perform oral sex on corporations. If there’s a time for that kind of hyperbole, it’s not when we’re trying to explain to Democrats why we aren’t Democrats.
The difference between Democrats in government and Republicans isn’t merely symbolic, either. One party is more likely to, for example, vote to extend unemployment benefits, while the other is less likely. We can’t go around thumbing our noses at material support for the unemployed, and we would independently issue such policy demands, and pass such policies (and then some) if we could. Better, I think, to point out how such policies are not enough, systemically never enough, and how continuing to sustain corporate politics will ensure continued economic crises in which such struggles will ensue. In the meantime, we have to build a movement to demand unemployment relief no matter which big party is in power, as well as to build independent networks of relief to show ourselves (and, I suppose, the elites) that self-sufficiency is possible. I realize I’m issuing a lot of imperatives, and intersecting a lot of tendencies and movements here, but that’s what it’s going to take to provide a comprehensive answer to the “political meliorism”* argument made by progressive Democrats: that we need to keep voting the lesser evil because it really is lesser.
The more honest answer than “there’s no difference” is to say: “The reason I’m voting for ___ and not Obama, or the reason I’m campaigning for the ___ and not the Democrats, is that the number and nature of bad policies the Democrats and Obama support, as well as their general social and economic orientation, exceeds my willingness to tow the line for them just because they’re the slightly more progressive powerful party. It’s the powerful party part that’s the problem, too: I don’t want to keep supporting corporate politics. I won’t support a party who gets corporate funding, and I won’t support a party that subscribes to a hegemonic military paradigm. I don’t think those things are necessary or inevitable, I believe in real change, and I’m willing to risk upsetting the apple cart — even if that means not doing the Democratic Party any favors in elections — in order to make that happen.”**
We also need to point out that the Democratic Party’s bargain, Faustian or Machiavellian, with corporate America dilutes whatever policy potential exists in two-party reformism. We need to make such arguments smartly, bravely, and engagingly.
A large part of our argument is based on the belief that the long term matters more than the short term. Why are we afraid to admit that? Maybe because we know that there are a few things that really do matter, and more that seem to matter, in the short term, and we need to be able to show that there’s hope of ameliorating, remodeling, and building new institutions even in the short term when we reject corporate politics. We aren’t a bunch of cultists wishing for the apocalypse in hopes of a new world rising from the ashes of the old (at least I’m not). We need to demonstrate commitment to building those new institutions right here and now, all around us, and not leaving the refugees of change out in the cold.
A large part of our argument is based on the belief that the system is the problem, that the dynamics of it, and the interests it serves, cause the very problems the Democrats offer their paltry and corporate-compromised policies up to solve. If an Obama supporter argues that a few less people will die because of their guy, we have to be willing to point out that their guy supports a system that kills tens of thousands of people every day–and yes, the Democrats sometimes save a few more of those lives than the Republicans in the short term, but we simply must figure out a way to save those lives in the short term and the long term, or else we’ll just keep on dying. Then, we say: I won’t accept the inevitability of all that needless death. I can’t accept it.
We can do our part to promote a good faith dialogue with Democrats only if we stop pretending there’s no difference between them and Republicans and instead point out that those differences are not, and should not be, the end of the conversation. And to acknowledge that difference necessitates suggesting and enacting strategies to deal with those differences in the here and now, in ways that wean us from dependence on corporate benevolence. For those who say we shouldn’t give the proverbial fig about how Democrats feel about alternative politics, I couldn’t disagree more. Alienate at your own risk. I say we shouldn’t allow even profound disagreements to foreclose good will. Seeds are planted and people change at different speeds and for different reasons. We need to be honest about our disagreements, and base them on sound reasoning rather than the hyperbole of erasing the symbolically significant differences between the bourgeois parties.
For those who say we should spend an equal amount of time thinking about how to recruit Republicans, I say more power to ya. You’re probably right, and you’re probably at least as competent as I am, so go ahead and figure it out and let us know–right here on this site, even.
* Religious meliorism holds that we ought to respond to the “problem of evil” in traditional Christianity by committing ourselves to combat that evil. From this I derive political meliorism: a Democrat’s acceptance of the inevitability of a colonized and inegalitarian system of politics, and the response of simply committing to minimize this evil.
** It’s far from evident left alternative parties and candidates help Republicans get elected. Most Democrats take it on faith that they do. Irrespective of that argument, lesser-evilism ensures that the Democratic Party will incrementally drift ever rightward, (I.R.D.) as Democratic candidates, having taken the left for granted, have the incentive only to reach out for more corporate money (with its invariably right-swinging strings) and right-wing voters. Hope to have more to say about both “spoiler” charges and I.R.D.