Monday, July 23, 2007

Taking Stock

s there a principled or at least a defensible way to choose among lesser evils? With the Democratic nomination likely to be settled by early next year, many of us will soon have to make a momentous lesser evil choice. Inasmuch as the Republican field of candidates is pathetic, and inasmuch as the Bush administration’s incompetence has all but undermined the party’s chances in any case, barring unforeseeable circumstances, we will in effect be choosing the next President -- almost a year in advance of the next election. The obviously defective “anything but Bush” principle that gave us John Kerry in 2004 is now moot. According to all the pundits, the field of potential candidates is strong. On what basis then should we decide? Even in these dog days of summer, it is a timely question. Now (July 23), the eve of the CNN/You Tube “debate,” is therefore a good time to reflect on criteria, take stock of the candidates, and draw (tentative) conclusions.

Does gender matter? Not nearly as much as policies affecting the condition of women but Yes it surely matters – at least symbolically. Women have governed in more patriarchal societies than ours – in south Asia, for example, and in Latin America. This has not done much to diminish patriarchy. Neither have the results been especially impressive. Indeed, in “developed” countries, women leaders have shown themselves to be at least as villainous as men – think Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir. For that matter, think Condoleezza Rice [With Colin Powell gone, she’s also the Cheney/Bush government’s token black and token non-maniac] or Nancy (“impeachment is off the table”) Pelosi. Women may not be better rulers than men; they may not even be less bellicose or more caring. But there is doubtless some good that comes when they occupy high offices. On the whole, unless they are significantly worse at a policy level than their male rivals, the mere fact of gender does therefore matter – somewhat. In the coming electoral contest, this is a mark in favor of Hillary Clinton. But it is hardly a decisive mark.

Does race – specifically, African ancestry -- matter? Yes, even more so, given our history; and, again, notwithstanding the dismal record of African and Afro-Caribbean leaders. An Obama victory would be unprecedented – even at a world level. No other country, certainly no developed country, has ever been led by a member of a racial minority that has suffered oppression to the degree African Americans have. No other country comes close. In this context, race is therefore a weighty factor. But, again, it should not be decisive for at least two reasons:

-first, because what matters most, even in this case, are policies, not symbols. Obama’s reluctance to discuss policies is not necessarily a mark against him. In comparison to John Edwards, and even to Hillary Clinton, he’s playing the game Gary Hart did in the eighties – declaring himself in favor of “new ideas” without giving many hints of what those ideas might be. He has little incentive to do so; after all, his popularity depends on not alienating any of his potential constituencies. It is therefore judicious to be vague. But, in the end, it is the same as with gender: the mere fact of African ancestry is not enough; what matters are policies. This is why voters, all of us but especially African-American voters, should demand clear answers about what Obama wants to do before jumping on his bandwagon.

-second, although no member of an oppressed minority has ever ruled a great power at a national level, we, in the United States, have ample experience of Black Power at the municipal level – and the evidence is not encouraging. African Americans have assumed a place in “the power structures” of many major cities – a place subordinate to elite economic interests – and very little has changed for the better for the vast majority of African Americans. To be sure, Obama is cut from a different cloth than most black mayors. But he’s already falling into the familiar pattern. Even more than Clinton, he’s become the darling of the financial industry [See “Following the Money,” July 19]. More alarmingly, in his rapid transformation from a community organizer fresh out of Law School to a politician of national stature, he has quickly abandoned potentially troublesome progressive convictions. In One Country [Metropolitan Books, 2006, pp. 43-4], Ali Abunimah recounts how Obama abruptly dropped his former advocacy of an evenhanded approach in Israeli-Palestinian relations after his nationally televised speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama is not the most servile ally of the Israel lobby among today’s candidates; that title must go to Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton close behind. But he’s not ahead of the pack either. This does not bode well.

Similar considerations apply mutatis mutandis to Bill Richardson, a Mexican-American. But Richardson has little chance of becoming the candidate. Indeed, he seems to be running more for the vice-presidential nomination. In any case, at a policy level, he would appear to be the worst of the Democratic contenders. Membership in an oppressed national minority is a mark in his favor; but a weak one indeed.

Policies matter most, but there is very little prospect of getting reliable information about what candidates would actually do once in office – not just because the future is unpredictable, but because all candidates, not just Obama, have few incentives to make their present thinking clear enough for voters to make informed judgments. This is why the best evidence we have to go on is a candidate’s general political orientation. Here too, though, there are limitations – not just because of what we don’t know, but also because of what we do.

What we know is that our leaders operate under severe constraints. The candidate with the best politics in the 2000 election was Ralph Nader – by far. The Democratic candidate with the best politics now and in 2004 is Dennis Kucinich; Mike Gravel is next in line. None of these candidates had or have a serious chance to win – not with our electoral laws, our media and our party system. But even if, by a miracle, one of them did win, he would not be able to implement his better ideas, except perhaps in trivial ways (say, by establishing a Department of Peace) or to govern in a way that is substantially different from the other contenders. The constraints are too powerful. That’s why, for those of us interested in real social change, elections are not where the action is. For a profound change of course to occur, the constraints have to change. That requires a level of political activity and engagement that has very little to do with electoral contests, and that we in the United States have seldom even glimpsed. In genuinely transformative moments, elections only ratify victories that have already been won outside the electoral arena.

This is why, though, it plainly does matter what candidates think, it matters less than one might expect. This is also why the candidate with the best politics is not necessarily the candidate who, in power, would do the most good.

I would add, at this point, that I remain unapologetic about supporting Ralph Nader in 2000. But in voting for him and giving money to his campaign, I emphatically was not, as Nader put it, voting “with my heart.” Nader’s politics were better by far than Al Gore’s or any other Democrat’s. But they weren’t exactly my politics. I voted for Nader mainly because I saw his candidacy as a way to build the Green Party and, in so doing, to break the debilitating party duopoly that afflicts our political culture. That seemed like a good idea at the time, and it still does (although the Green Party seems, by now, to have missed its chance and therefore to have outlived its usefulness). The superiority of Nader’s politics was therefore not the deciding issue for me, except to the extent that the Green Party represented a better, more progressive alternative to the duopoly; that it was not, like Ross Perot’s Reform Party or whatever Michael Bloomberg might concoct, something no better or even worse. Similarly, the superiority of Kucinich’s or Gravel’s ideas matters little – less even than Obama’s race or Clinton’s gender. The problem, again, is not that they can’t win and therefore that a vote for them is a lost vote (as in “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush”). It’s that even if they did win, everything else being the same, it wouldn’t much matter.

On the other hand, Kucinich and Gravel have an invaluable role to play in the coming electoral contest. They will help to expand and deepen the political “debate.” Unfortunately, they won’t help much; our debased political culture will not allow it. But they will help some. Thus it is of the utmost importance that Kucinich and Gravel compete for the nomination. Paradoxically, though, it hardly matters at all that they will lose.

Great changes are not in the offing just now, but what is feasible, thanks more to George W. Bush than to the Lesser Evil Party, is a break with the neo-liberal line Bill Clinton and the current administration share, and with the concomitant “bipartisan” inclination to wage “demonstration” wars, diminish civil liberties, and exacerbate social inequalities. The neo-conservatism of the Cheney/Bush government represents a caricature of Clintonite politics, not a different political course. Its caricatural aspect is accentuated by the manifest incompetence of the administration that let the neocons have their way. Cheney and Bush are bad (out of control and inept) Clintonites, but Clintonites nonetheless. Any of the Democratic candidates would be an improvement. But are any of them, other than Kucinich and Gravel, more than just better Clintonites?

Hillary Clinton isn’t. In her case, there’s no political space between her and her husband. The Big Question is: is Obama a Clintonite too. If it comes to look increasingly like the answer is Yes, then I, for one, would be inclined to think that this consideration swamps other reasons to vote for him, at least so long as there’s a feasible, non-Clintonite alternative. It’s not yet clear that there is. But John Edwards does seem to fit the description. In other words, he may just be the best we can do under the conditions that pertain. It remains to be seen, of course; the next five or six months will provide more information. But believing, as I do, that it now is feasible to end Clintonism altogether, and knowing what I know now, if I had to vote for a candidate today, even allowing that Kucinich’s views are closer to mine than Edwards’ are, I would probably vote for John Edwards. I would do so because, in this summer of 2007, it seems that there’s no better way to achieve the break with Clintonism that has become achievable. If, next year, we must settle for a better, kinder, more competent Clintonism, with or without a Clinton at the helm, then, in the spirit of the lesser evilism that is now our lot, so be it. But if there is the least chance to do better, we should seize the opportunity – and, if need be, deal with the disappointment later.


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