Election 2008

Iowa Dispatch: Why It's Wrong to 'Sit This One Out'

Hold one's nose and vote for the lesser evil?
I am traveling through Iowa this week, trying to catch as many campaign events as I can. And, while bracing myself to step out into single digit temperatures this morning, I had occasion to read Adolph Reed's much discussed essay, "Sitting this one out." I admire Reed greatly - his democratic socialism is similar to my own. He's extremely smart, an incisive writer and draws on a great depth of historical understanding to press his points. And, his analysis of the campaign dynamics of the past twenty years seems spot on:
The Democratic candidates who are anointed "serious" are like a car with a faulty front-end alignment: Their default setting pulls to the right. They are unshakably locked into a strategy that impels them to give priority to placating those who aren't inclined to vote for them and then palliate those who are with bromides and doublespeak. When we complain, they smugly say, "Well, you have no choice but to vote for me because the other guy's worse." The party has essentially been nominating the same ticket with the same approach since Dukakis.
What I am wrestling with here is whether his conclusions follow from his analysis. Because, while he is undoubtedly right about the drift of the party and the shift in the center of political gravity in the United States, it remains true that a Republican presidency (combined with a Republican and increasingly conservative courts) has been disastrous. To take one example, Reed dismisses the old Liberal standby - the Court. He writes:
And I'm prepared to blow off every liberal who starts whining and hectoring, in that self-important and breathless way they do, about our obligation to protect "choice" or to make sure we can get another Stephen Breyer or Sandra Day O'Connor onto the Supreme Court.
I have often, in the past, shared Reed's frustration with this line, especially to the extent that the court argument tended to reduce to a single issue -- abortion -- that while certainly extremely significant, often obscured other issues critical to progressives - poverty, corporate power and the like that moderate Democrats seemed ineffectual at dealing with.

But, what we've learned from the catastrophic appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito is that abortion is far from the only thing at stake in a dangerously right-wing court. Affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, the public's right to regulate business - all of these things have suffered significant setbacks as a consequence of 5-4 rulings on the Roberts court -- rulings which, there is little doubt, would have broken differently had a Democrat appointed the last two Supreme court justices.

Reed argues that Democrats are what they are - that the real work of Progressives must focus on movement building between elections, not anointing inevitably disappointing candidates during them. Having arrived in Iowa yesterday to follow the candidates around for the week, I am both more skeptical of his arguments and more wary of precisely the things Reed says we should be wary of.

On the one hand, the differences in content between the Democrats and Republicans is striking and far-reaching. Since yesterday, I have seen Obama, Clinton and Edwards events. Each spoke at length about the health care crisis in America and vowed to greatly ameliorate if not eliminate that crisis. Each expressed concern (for Edwards it was a call to arms) about the growing gap between rich and poor, the badly skewed tilt of our tax code and the increasing squeeze on the middle class. Clinton and Edwards hit hard on legislation giving hedge fund managers lower tax rates than, as Clinton put it, "their secretaries." All candidates talked about ending the war in Iraq and all decry the irresponsible and unilateral foreign policy of the current administration.

Contrast that to Mitt Romney's talk, which I saw at an intimate private home gathering just outside Des Moines today. Romney spoke first and most forcefully about terrorism, or "radical, violent Jihad" as he put it, and the need to stamp out Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad everywhere in the world. He did, to my surprise, mention the 47 million uninsured, but he offered no plan for dealing with it and said nothing about the struggles of ordinary Americans. He repeatedly trumpeted America's greatness and the need to keep America number one. He emphasized that his experience as a private businessman would help America and his proposals for improving the economy emphasized only one policy plank: keeping taxes low.

It's hard for a progressive, no matter how flawed the three Democratic frontrunners may be in their distinctive ways, to ignore the basic fact that the ideological center of the two parties is vastly different. One party repeatedly emphasizes the plight of the great majority of Americans and promises to eliminate the most egregious giveaways to wealthy Americans; the other offers platitudes and tax cuts. One party struggles earnestly with solutions to the question of immigration and rejects categorical calls for "sending them all back"; the other wants to build a fence. And, let's not talk about the Republican party's growing skepticism about evolution.

On the other hand, the speeches and the attention they are given are lulling -- they do not tell us what kind of President any of these candidates would be. Indeed, campaign speeches and political rhetoric are arguably more deceptive than revealing. Staking out positions allows candidates presents to project ideal versions of themselves and, in the process, plays on the hopes and delusions of all of us for pristine solutions to our messy problems. This fool's gold is precisely, it seems to me, the danger to which Reed draws our attention.

For example, Edwards' increasingly strident, indeed thunderous, populism is, in some senses music to my ears (as is the Springsteen background that accompanies his arrival on stage). At his appearance in Ames, Iowa today, Edwards launched a relentless, twenty-plus minute attack on "moneyed interests" and corporate greed. But, what would happen under an Edwards presidency? Would he really stand up to corporate fat cats, beat back the lobbyists and bring to heel the powerful energy, pharmaceutircal and multi-national interests that he says are hijacking our political system? The fairest answer is probably - a little. But much else would need to change besides electing a President who speaks in impressively strident tones.

Likewise, would Hillary govern as a compromising centrist? Probably. But, with the prospect of strong Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House following the 2008 elections (and more liberal ones, given regional changes, than those that accompanied Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992), could she enact meaningful reform of health care, this time around? Possibly. And, is there any doubt that she would sign, not veto the extensions of S-CHIP health insurance for children that Bush so blithely rejected? No chance. And, would all three candidates nominate justices far to the left of the Alitos, Scalias, Roberts and Thomases of the world? I have absolutely no doubt.

The Democrats, as a party embedded in compromised and weakened political institutions are, to be sure, an inadequate political force. And, no election is, by itself, likely to change that.

As Reed writes:
It's a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn't vote ourselves into this mess, and we're not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It's not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort.
All true and, rhetorical differences aside, the Democratic party's production has not matched its rhetoric, to put it politely. And, yet, after seven years of Katrina, of abolition of estate taxes and tax cuts for the wealthy, of willful obstruction of any action on the environment (and yes, I know the Democrats' inadequacies on this front, too), of sickening levels of corruption, what has become intolerable is that the country continued to be governed by what Paul Krugman calls "movement conservatism." The alternative may be inadequate, frustrating, and downright lame. But, that's still a different thing than saying it doesn't matter who wins elections and why, therefore, "sitting it out" takes us farther from the things we believe our country needs.
Jonathan Weiler is a Professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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