The progressive puzzle

Let’s imagine that you’re a progressive and you are asked to support a candidate who:

– Favors expanding the war in Afghanistan

– Leaving a sizable force in and near Iraq following what he calls a “withdrawal.” A large mercenary force would probably also be left.

– Aggressively opposed the impeachment of Bush. This same advisor says he would “be stunned” if his candidate appointed a strong critic of corporations to the Supreme Court.

– Has offered no major new ideas for dealing with the nation’s economic crisis.

– Supports Bill Clinton’s assault on social welfare.

– Supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts

– Voted for a business-friendly tort bill

– Voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards

– Had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries

– Is even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain

– Was most popular of the primary candidates with K Street lobbyists

– Has a top economic aide who has written enthusiastically about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.

– Has no meaningful urban policy

– Supports the war on drugs

– Supports the crack-cocaine sentence disparity

– Supports Real ID

– Supports the PATRIOT Act

– Supports the death penalty

– Has lent his support to the neo-liberal Hamilton Project, which was formed, as one journalist put it, “to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party.”

– Has considered naming as vice president or cabinet members rightwing Republicans rated 0% by SANE, AFL-CIO, NARAL, Alliance for Retired Americans, Human Rights Coalition and the League of Conservation Voters, and who oppose abortion and favor privatizing Social Security

– Voted for a nuclear energy bill that included money for bunker buster bombs and full funding for Yucca Mountain.

– Supports federally funded ethanol and is unusually close to the ethanol industry.

– Supports the No Child Left Behind Act.

– Opposes reintroduction of the fairness doctrine for radio and television.

– Is using hawkish foreign policy advisors involved in past US misdeeds and failures.

– Strongly supports Israeli aggression and apartheid.

– Favors turning over Jerusalem to Israel

– Favored cluster bomb ban in civilian areas

– Opposes single payer healthcare

– Wouldn’t have photo taken with San Francisco mayor because he was afraid it would seem that he supported gay marriage

– Favors a national service plan that appears to be in sync with one being promoted by a new coalition that would make national service mandatory by 2020, and which is in line with a bill for such mandatory national service introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel.

– Has dissed both Ralph Nader and Paul Wellstone

– Supports immunity from prosecution for both telecoms engaged in illegal wiretapping and the government officials that had them do it. You don’t have to imagine. It’s Barack Obama, whose nomination was assured thanks to a con game that even outdid the one that worked so well for Bill Clinton and which left America essentially without a liberal voice for eight years.

Admittedly, Obama is a far more honest and decent person that Clinton but that doesn’t take away from the fact that progressive America has been hit hard once again and much of it doesn’t even realize it.

One standard liberal response is denial. You just join the cult and forget about the facts. And to shore up this shoddy state, you excoriate any who remain skeptical, fearful, angry or uncertain.

If, on the other hand, you wish not to participate in the charade, there are no comfortable alternatives.

For example, one may choose to support Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney. Based simply on the issues, this is the most logical and moral route. The problem is that history suggests that it doesn’t do much good. Not only is the electoral system hopelessly rigged against it, but even under the best of circumstances a presidential campaign depends not only on who is leading it but who is behind it. Neither candidate is backed by the sort of movement where even if you lose you still make an difference. This is not a criticism of either Nader or McKinney. After all, Jesus went to the cross with only 12 disciples. But it is a problem.

With the except of Eugene Debs, all the most successful third party presidential candidates over the past century have drawn primarily from disgruntled mainstream factions, not radical or progressive movements. Further each of the third parties had only one opportunity to make their point in a big way in a presidential race.

Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates since 1900:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
LaFolette: 17%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
Anderson: 7%

All other third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race.

Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that third parties – like certain insects – are merely born, have sex, and then die. In fact, some of the third parties have had long, remarkably healthy lives, but in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic example, with a history dating back over 100 years. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending as late as 1960. And let us not forget Bernie Sanders.

In fact, some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). An example was the Liberal Party of New York, the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists.

As one of the founders of the national Green Party I have tried unsuccessfully to encourage a backyard Green approach, working from the bottom up and emphasizing local rather than national campaigns. But living in a time when it is assumed that all change ultimately emanates from the television screen, the White House or God, such a grassroots view is regarded as somewhat antiquated.

Nonetheless, I do not begrudge anyone’s choice to go the Nader or McKinney route. Further, Democrats who treat such people as worthless scoundrels and scum need to remember that these are folks who in large part believe in the sort of things once promoted by the Democratic Party. And if Democrats accept the existence of Republicans as an inevitable part of political intelligent design, why not Greens and independents as well?

Another approach to the problem is apathy. I tend to be more tolerant of apathy than many of my ilk because I know precisely how hard it is to remain involved when on every day and at every turn one loses the battle. Besides, most who publicly decry apathy are not looking for independent action or rebellion but blind loyalty to whatever they are pushing at the moment. Further, while I might wish that more were politically engaged, I understand their reticence given the choices with which they are presented.

My only suggestion to the apathetic is to view it as a transitional state, a sort of nap before you discover what it is you might find worth pursuing. And it certainly doesn’t have to be a candidate. The list that began this essay is also a directory of things that desperately need more attention.

There is then an approach I think of as grumpy uncertainty. In most any campaign, undecideds are a larger voting bloc than any third party and, since the candidates go to great lengths to reach them, one could argue the case for a well organized group of the blatantly befuddled. On a personal level, uncertainty is disturbing to the blindly committed and sometimes even causes them to think. On a group level, it can be quite powerful.

Another approach is what might be called the one minute endorsement, in which voters extend their support for Obama only as long as they are in the voting booth, following which they return home and immediately upon the closing of the polls aligned themselves with activist critics of the new administration.

(For those of blessed to live in states and colonies with sizable Democratic margins – like my hometown of DC – you can have it both ways: vote for Nader or McKinney and not have to worry about helping to elect McCain.)

Finally, there is what might be called the dental appointment approach. No rational person ever wants to go to the dentist and you rarely feel any better after it’s over. But medicine assures us that by keeping these appointments we cut down on cavities and reduce the prospect of pain. And there is some evidence that this is true.

A similar argument could be made on Obama’s behalf. For example, by supporting Obama we increase the likelihood that the number of high officials who support a fascistic approach to life will be substantially reduced. There is a high probability that the Supreme Court will not be as painful an experience as it is at present. Obama might even propose some good laws and a Democratic Congress might force others upon him. With sufficient pressure, his desire for post-partisanship might even include the presence of one or two progressives.

And while it is entirely possible that America will continue its move to the right under Obama, it is also possible that he will stabilize the patient. Rather than making us better or worse, he might be a transitional figure, both the last gasp of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush corporatism and the door opener to something better after he’s gone.

Not least important is the fact that with a Democratic president, the environment in which progressives work will be substantially altered. We spend so much time discussing the faults and virtues of our candidates that we easily forget that one of their most important functions of a president is to establish an ecology for politics. This doesn’t mean that it will be uniformly friendly, only that the options and the opportunities may increase.

Of course, progressives have to use them. They didn’t during the Clinton years and we paid a huge price thanks to the Monica Lewinsky wing of the Democratic Party that was willing to do whatever the president wanted even as they still claimed to be liberals.

Being a cynical, amoral, weak-livered sort, I tend to favor the dental appointment approach. After all, politics was designed for people like me; saints and prophets were meant to stick to religion.

Admittedly, when the weather turns nasty, I drift towards grumpy uncertainty. It’s especially appealing when some self-righteous Obamite appears on the scene; even a little agnosticism drives them batty.

But the point here is not to argue the proper course, but to point out that those on the left have been presented with one more miserable conundrum and, as should be expected, are finding a variety of ways to approach it.

There is a long tradition for the left to eat its own. Greens, for example, have been repeatedly cruelly attacked or ostracized for their efforts. Much progressive media has blacked out even mention of them. Those liberals or progressives supporting Obama, on the other hand, also come in for a lot of gratuitous criticism from the true believers in Nader or the Green Party.

There are, however, other models. For example, the Socialist Party describes its beginnings this way:

“From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of ‘reform vs. revolution,’ the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making ‘immediate demands’ of a reformist nature. . . . The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”

You can’t find a single movement on the left these days that could claim such eclecticism.

And we don’t have all that much to play with. A Battleground Poll last May found only 34% of Americans listing themselves as liberal, with only 8% describing themselves as very liberal. Sixty two percent call themselves conservative, with 22% saying they are very conservative.

If we spent more time building coalitions around issues rather than candidates, we might have an easier time getting along with each other. It’s been my experience that the most disruptive matters on the left have not been issues, but rather tactics and candidates.

For example, a poll taken at the recent Netroots conference found five key issues that at least 15% of the attendees agreed were first or second on their agenda: Iraq, energy and ecology, healthcare, the growing gap between rich and poor and the loss of constitution rights.

In each of these areas save the economic one, progressives have clear and easily understood positions. When such issues are on top, intramural problems decline. For example, the growing movement for single payer includes labor unions that are supporting Obama as well as Greens and Naderities.

Marc Weisbrodt, in Alternet, offers another example: a congressional bill calling for a boycott of Iran (which, is, in fact, an act of war):

“Groups opposed to military confrontation with Iran sprang into action, including Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, the National Iranian-American Council, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Code Pink, and Just Foreign Policy. They generated tens of thousands of emails, letters, phone calls, and other contacts with members of Congress and their staff. The first co-sponsor to change his position on the bill was Representative Barney Frank (D-MA. . . He apologized for ‘not having read [the bill] more carefully,’ and pledged that he would not support the bill with the blockade language.

“Then Robert Wexler, (D-FL), peeled off, also stating that he would not continue to support the bill if the blockade language were not changed. Most of the major media ignored the controversy, but two newspapers noticed it. The first was Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer, whose editorial board denounced the resolution on June 24 and asked, ‘are supporters of Res. 362 asleep at the wheel, or are they just anxious to drag us into another illegal war?’

“Then on June 27 the editorial board of Newsday published an editorial calling for a full debate on the bill. Newsday has a large circulation, and perhaps more importantly, it publishes in the New York district of Congressman Gary Ackerman – the lead author of the H. Con. Res. 362.

“Then, earlier this month, Congressman Mike Thompson (D- CA) wrote: ‘[Howard] Berman [Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs] has indicated that he has no intention of moving the bill through his committee unless the language is first altered to ensure that there is no possible way it could be construed as authorizing any type of military action against Iran. I will withdraw my support for the bill if this change is not made.'”

Should Obama be elected, there will be plenty of opportunities for similar actions as well as pressing for change we can believe in even if the new president thinks of it as a change he would just as soon forget about.

We need to think of ourselves as a progressive, sectarian equivalent of the religious right in the Republican Party: well organized, ubiquitous cells of carefully directed intent that the Democratic Party establishment wishes would disappear but knows won’t and so has to placate it. In the end, Obama will not have given us leadership, but only a better battlefield.

In the meanwhile, however, be kind to your fellow progressives however they choose to deal with this illusionary distortion of democracy we still call an election. Electing a good president these days is the art of the impossible. But we can still choose issues wisely; we can still fight for, and define ourselves by, such issues rather than just obediently walking in the shadow of someone who is almost certain to disappoint us.

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