U.S. Presidential elections are not what progressives want them to be
A large segment of what we will call the ‘progressive forces’ in US politics approach US elections generally, and Presidential elections in particular, as if: (1) we have more power on the ground than we actually possess, and (2) the elections are about expressing our political outrage at the system. Both get us off on the wrong foot.
The US electoral system is among the most undemocratic on the planet. Constructed in a manner so as to guarantee an ongoing dominance of a two party duopoly, the US electoral universe largely aims at reducing so-called legitimate discussion to certain restricted parameters acceptable to the ruling circles of the country. Almost all progressive measures, such as Medicare for All or Full Employment, are simply declared ‘off the table.’ In that sense there is no surprise that the Democratic and Republican parties are both parties of the ruling circles, even though they are quite distinct within that sphere.
The nature of the US electoral system–and specifically the ballot restrictions and ‘winner-take-all’ rules within it–encourages or pressures various class fractions and demographic constituency groups to establish elite-dominated electoral coalitions. The Democratic and Republican parties are, in effect, electoral coalitions or party-blocs of this sort, unrecognizable in most of the known universe as political parties united around a program and a degree of discipline to be accountable to it. We may want and fight for another kind of system, but it would be foolish to develop strategy and tactics not based on the one we actually have.
The winner-take-all nature of the system discourages independent political parties and candidacies on both the right and the left. For this reason the extreme right made a strategic decision in the aftermath of the 1964 Goldwater defeat to move into the Republican Party with a long-term objective of taking it over. This was approached at the level of both mass movement building, e.g., anti-busing, anti-abortion, as well as electoral candidacies. The GOP right’s ‘Southern Strategy’ beginning in 1968 largely succeeded in chasing out most of the pro-New Deal Republicans from the party itself, as well as drawing in segregationist Democratic voters in the formerly ‘Solid South.’
Efforts by progressives to realign or shift the Democratic Party, on the other hand, were blunted by the defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and later the defeat of the McGovern candidacy in 1972, during which time key elements of the party’s upper echelons were prepared to lose the election rather than witness a McGovern victory. In the 1980s a very different strategy was advanced by Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow insurgencies that aimed at building—at least initially—an independent, progressive organization capable of fielding candidates within the Democratic primaries. This approach—albeit independent of Jackson himself—had an important local victory with the election of Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago. At the national level, however, it ran into a different set of challenges by 1989.
In the absence of a comprehensive electoral strategy, progressive forces fall into one of three cul-de-sacs: (1) ad hoc electoralism, i.e., participating in the election cycle but with no long-term plan other than tailing the Democrats; (2) abandoning electoral politics altogether in favor of modern-day anarcho-syndicalist ‘pressure politics from below’; or (3) satisfying ourselves with far more limited notions that we can best use the election period in order to ‘expose’ the true nature of the capitalist system in a massive way by attacking all of the mainstream candidates. We think all of these miss the key point.
Our elections are about money and the balance of power
Money is obvious, particularly in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The balance of power is primarily at the level of the balance within the ruling circles, as well as the level of grassroots power of the various mass movements. The party that wins will succeed on the basis of the sort of electoral coalition that they are able to assemble, co-opt or be pressured by, including but not limited to the policy and interest conflicts playing out within its own ranks.
The weakness of left and progressive forces means we have been largely unable to participate, in our own name and independent of the two party upper crust, in most national-level elections with any hope of success. In that sense most left and progressive interventions in the electoral arena at the national level, especially at the Presidential level, are ineffective acts of symbolic opposition or simply propaganda work aimed at uniting and recruiting far smaller circles of militants. They are not aimed at a serious challenge for power but rather aim to demonstrate a point of view, or to put it more crassly, to ‘fly the flag.’ The electoral arena is frequently not viewed as an effective site for structural reforms or a more fundamental changing of direction.
Our politics, in this sense, can be placed in two broad groupings—politics as self-expression and politics as strategy. In an overall sense, the left needs both of these—the audacity and energy of the former and the ability to unite all who can be united of the latter. But it is also important to know the difference between the two, and which to emphasize and when in any given set of battles.
Consider, for a moment, the reform struggles with which many of us are familiar. Let’s say that a community is being organized to address a demand for jobs on a construction site. If the community is not entirely successful in this struggle, it does not mean that the struggle was wrong or inappropriate. It means that the progressives were too weak organizationally and the struggle must continue. The same is true in the electoral arena. The fact that it is generally difficult, in this period, to get progressives elected or that liberal and progressive candidates may back down on a commitment once elected, does not condemn the arena of the struggle. It does, however, say something about how we might need to organize ourselves better in order to win and enforce accountability.
In part due to justified suspicion of the electoral system and a positive impulse for self-expression and making our values explicit, too many progressives view the electoral realm as simply a canvass upon which various pictures of the ideal future are painted. Instead of constructing a strategy for power that involves a combination of electoral and non-electoral activity, uniting both a militant minority and a progressive majority, there is an impulsive tendency to treat the electoral realm as an idea bazaar rather than as one of the key sites on which the struggle for progressive power unfolds.
The Shifts within the Right and the Rise of Irrationalism
Contrary to various myths, there was no ‘golden age’ in our country where politicians of both parties got along and politics was clean. U. S. politics has always been dirty. One can look at any number of elections in the 19th century, for instance, with the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 being among the more notorious, to see examples of electoral chicanery. Elections have been bought and sold and there has been wide-spread voter disenfranchisement. In the late 19th century and early 20th century massive voter disenfranchisement unfolded as part of the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Due to gains by both the populist and socialists is this era, by the 1920s our election laws were ‘reformed’—in all but a handful of states—to do away with ‘fusion ballots’ and other measures previously helpful to new insurgent forces forming independent parties and alliances.
What is significant about the current era has been the steady move of the Republican Party toward the right, not simply at the realm of neoliberal economics (which has also been true of much of the Democratic Party establishment) but also in other features of the ‘ideology’ and program of the Republicans. For this reason we find it useful to distinguish between conservatives and right-wing populists (and within right-wing populism, to put a spotlight on irrationalism). Right-wing populism is actually a radical critique of the existing system, but from the political right with all that that entails. Uniting with irrationalism, it seeks to build program and direction based largely upon myths, fears and prejudices.
Right-wing populism exists as the equivalent of the herpes virus within the capitalist system. It is always there–sometimes latent, at other times active—and it does not go away. In periods of system distress, evidence of right-wing populism erupts with more force. Of particular importance in understanding right-wing populism is the complex intersection of race, anti-immigrant settler-ism, ‘producerism,’ homophobia and empire.
In the US, right-wing populism stands as the grassroots defender of white racial supremacy. It intertwines with the traditional myths associated with the “American Dream” and suggests that the US was always to be a white republic and that no one, no people, and no organization should stand in the way of such an understanding. It seeks enemies, and normally enemies based on demographics of ‘The Other’. After all, right-wing populism sees itself in the legacy of the likes of Andrew Jackson and other proponents of Manifest Destiny, a view that saw no inconsistency between the notion of a white democratic republic, ethnic cleansing, slavery, and a continental (and later global) empire. ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ was primarily the complete codification and nationalization of white supremacy in our country’s political life.
Irrationalism is rising as an endemic virus in our political landscape
Largely in times of crisis and uncertainty, virulent forms of irrationalism make an appearance. The threat to white racial supremacy that emerged in the 1960s, for instance, brought forward a backlash that included an irrationalist view of history, e.g., that the great early civilizations on Earth couldn’t have arisen from peoples with darker skins, but instead were founded by creatures from other planets. Irrationalism, moreover, was not limited to the racial realm. Challenges to scientific theories such as evolution and climate change are currently on the rise. Irrationalism cries for a return to the past, and within that a mythical past. A component of various right-wing ideologies, especially fascism, irrationalism exists as a form of sophistry, and even worse. It often does not even pretend to hold to any degree of logic, but rather simply requires the acceptance of a series of non sequitur assertions.
Right-wing populism and irrationalism have received nationwide reach anchored in institutions such as the Fox network, but also right-wing religious institutions. Along with right-wing talk radio and websites, a virtual community of millions of voters has been founded whose views refuse critique from within. Worse, well-financed and well-endowed walls are established to ensure that the views are not challenged from without. In the 2008 campaign and its immediate aftermath, we witnessed segments of this community in the rise of the ‘birther’ movement and its backing by the likes of Donald Trump. Like many other cults there were no facts that adherents of the ‘birthers’ would accept except those ‘facts’ which they, themselves, had established. Information contrary to their assertions was swept away. It didn’t matter that we could prove Obama was born in the US, because their real point, the he was a Black man, was true.
The 2012 Republican primaries demonstrated the extent to which irrationalism and right-wing populism, in various incarnations, have captured the Republican Party. That approximately 60% of self-identified Republicans would continue to believe that President Obama is not a legitimate citizen of the USA points to the magnitude of self-delusion.
The Obama campaign of 2008 at the grassroots was nothing short of a mass revolt
The energy for the Obama campaign was aimed against eight years of Bush, long wars, neoliberal austerity and collapse, and Republican domination of the US government. It took the form of a movement-like embrace of the candidacy of Barack Obama. The nature of this embrace, however, set the stage for a series of both strategic and tactical problems that have befallen progressive forces since Election Day 2008.
The mis-analysis of Obama in 2007 and 2008 by so many people led to an overwhelming tendency to misread his candidacy. In that period, we—the authors of this essay—offered critical support and urged independent organization for the Obama candidacy in 2008 through the independent ‘Progressives for Obama’ project. We were frequently chastised by some allies at the time for being too critical, too idealistic, too ‘left’, and not willing to give Obama a chance to succeed. Yet our measured skepticism, and call for independence and initiative in a broader front, was not based on some naïve impatience. Instead, it was based on an assessment of who Obama was and the nature of his campaign for the Presidency.
Obama was and is a corporate liberal
Obama is an eloquent speaker who rose to the heights of US politics after a very difficult upbringing and some success in Chicago politics. But as a national figure, he always positioned himself not so much as a fighter for the disenfranchised but more as a mediator of conflict, as someone pained by the growth of irrationalism in the USA and the grotesque image of the USA that much of the world had come to see. To say that he was a reformer does not adequately describe either his character or his objectives. He was cast as the representative, wittingly or not, of the ill-conceived ‘p