01 April 2015

The Democratic party's human shields

The Nation magazines celebrates its sesquicentennial with a massive squarebound issue of nearly 300 pages combining clips from storied authors of the past with commentary on present and future issues. With a presidential election coming up next year and many progressives feeling cold if not hostile to the putative Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, Michael Tomasky steps up with an all-too-timely defense of the "lesser evil" principle in national politics. We've all read and heard this stuff before. There's no reason for the argument to change: defections from the Democratic party only guarantee the election of Republicans who are self-evidently worse than the worst possible Democrat by any liberal or progressive standard. Tomasky concedes most progressive arguments against the Democratic party and its leaders, and he wishes for himself that the leaders were more courageous. But the Republicans are always worse and giving them more power by dividing the liberal/progressive voting bloc between Democrats and independents will have immediate bad consequences for the most vulnerable and helpless Americans. Going for the gut, Tomasky accuses independent-minded progressives of irresponsibility toward the poor.

[P]rotest votes tend to be cast by people who don’t have much skin in the game when it comes to the direct delivery of government services. That is, their own day-to-day lives won’t really be affected much by which party controls the White House. But most people who are direct beneficiaries of government programs and services can’t afford the luxury of being protest voters. Yes, millions of them vote Republican, because their guns (or whatever) are more important to them than their pay packet. But most poorer people still vote Democratic, and I can’t imagine that you could have gone to, say, the corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue in early November of 2000 and found many Ralph Nader voters.

I'd question whether Nader polled poorly in Harlem because of principled strategic thinking on the part of voters there. It's more likely that they, like most Americans, assumed that Nader votes were wasted because he had no chance to win. Note also that Tomasky makes no effort to show that black urban voters had passed judgment on Nader's platform. He simply assumes that the urban poor recognize what he implies: that protest voters and their candidates don't really give a damn about the day-to-day needs of the poor. That's a slur on both independent progressives and the urban poor. I suspect many of the latter would hold views on the economy well to the left of the Democratic party (if not also some views on society and culture to its right) while sharing the larger public's general defeatism in the face of the Bipolarchy's perceived overwhelming advantages. The sad thing about Tomasky's argument is that, to rebuke independent progressives, he effectively confirms a Republican argument against the welfare state: that economic dependence results in political dependence upon the Democratic party. While Republicans complain that this dependency discourages self-reliance on every level, the cruel reality is that the political dependency taken for granted by Tomasky discourages the poor from taking a chance to get a better deal from a government further from the left.

Tomasky wishes that the Democrats were more courageous and consistent in their progressive principles, but insists that they'll always be better than nothing, no to mention the worse-than-nothing policies of an increasingly radicalized Republican party. Can progressives make Democrats more courageous and principled without resorting to the threat of defection? The only option Tomasky seems to take seriously is reviving the labor movement and using it to primary the party in a more progressive direction, but he doesn't really have to worry about how long that might take to get results, because he's told progressives that it doesn't matter:

[N]o matter who the candidate is—no matter how deeply in hock to Wall Street, no matter how tepid her (ahem) inequality platform—the responsible person of the left must vote for the Democrat. Not strategically, but on principle. And not sometimes, or only in the states where it might truly matter. Everywhere, and every time.

Unconditional loyalty might get Democrats to listen to progressives, Tomasky writes, but nothing else will.

Politicians usually respond to people who vote for them, not against them. If a Democratic member of Congress or presidential candidate wins office over the conspicuous protests of voters on the left, he or she will ignore those voters completely once in office. This is how they think. So, if anything, protest votes have the effect of nudging Democrats to the right!

That nudge, if real, is nothing compared to the gravitational pull of Republican power. The worse Republicans get, it can be argued, the less Democrats have to do to retain a loyalty understood to depend entirely on the fact that they're not Republicans. Let me offer a different theory of how politicians think: most of them will only do as much as they have to in order to get elected. If all Democrats have to do is not be Republicans, why do more? Why make a special effort to earn the support of people you've intimidated into supporting you by arguing that people will starve in the streets if they don't? If my view seems more cynical than Tomasky's -- he seems to think that Democrats are sincere but timid -- then at least it's based on what has happened, not on what I wish might happen. In the end, all Tomasky promises is a holding action against a Republican surge or a Tea Party tide. Any implicit promise that Democrats will actually improve people's lives thanks to our unconditional loyalty can't be taken seriously.

In closing, Tomasky reminds us that "there are many ways to protest in this country" and urges us to "pursue them all with zeal—except in the presidential voting booth." Paradoxically, while insisting that we vote unconditionally for Democratic presidential candidates, Tomasky writes them off as potential reformers. The leading Democrats of our time, he writes, are "circumscribed by financial, institutional and structural forces that are far more powerful than their own personal will or lack thereof." Can these forces be tamed without the power of the Presidency? Tomasky may hope so, but despite his invitation to extra-electoral protest, his patronizingly risk-averse attitude doesn't inspire optimism. But in the face of still-hardening reactionary intransigence, there may be no hope of real, much less radical reform without accepting the risk of temporary defeat, no matter how costly. All Tomasky can recommend for Democrats is to hold babies in front of themselves as human shields from attack from both right and left. Such is his account of helpless poverty in America, with only Democrats to defend them, but the poor themselves may yet be willing to risk more than their self-appointed spokesman Tomasky can imagine to win a more just world.

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