The man in the video above is Roberto Unger, and he is really pissed at Barack Obama. So pissed, in fact, that he says he wants Obama–once his student at Harvard Law School–to suffer defeat at the ballot box this November. This in spite of Unger’s leftist leanings, and in spite of the fact that Unger served as an informal advisor to Obama during his 2008 campaign. If you don’t feel like watching, HuffPo lists Unger’s complaints about his former pupil:
- “His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.”
- “He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.”
- “He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.”
- “He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.”
- “He has reduced justice to charity.”
- “He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.”
- “He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.”
In a piece published yesterday by the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills reheats the Democratic Party chestnut that we have to elect Obama, because, hey, Romney’s worse, and if you don’t fall in line, then you’re an airy fairy purist who is going to tie us all to your high horse and drag us to political catastrophe. He writes:
The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes.
Thanks for the lecture on realpolitik, Garry, but not every lefty pondering whether or not to cast a ballot for the President is ignoring strategy in an OCD-inflected effort to keep his or her political hands clean. For the record, I’m undecided as to whether I’ll be voting for Obama or for nobody this fall. Like Unger, I find it difficult to support the reelection of a man who refused to seriously rein in the financial sector that tanked our economy, wouldn’t bring up single-payer even as a position from which to negotiate during the health care reform debates, continues a deeply troubling campaign of drone strikes whilst defining “militant” as any young male that they happen to kill, extended the Bush tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. But my consideration of abstention in November isn’t (only) me pouting because Obama didn’t pursue aims congruent with my own, or the disappointment of having to compromise. Non-participation can be strategic, and if you listen Unger’s words, it’s clear that he knows this, too.
Wills describes supporting the GOP as “a vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex.” (Why not include Northern, Western, and Midwestern racists, Garry? I promise you racism ain’t just a Southern thang.) What he fails to mention is how this posse solidified its control over half of our two-party system. It made demands. It became indispensable. It instilled serious fear in Republican candidates that unless they took seriously the concerns of the far right, the base would sit on their hands and said candidates would be out of a job. Grumble as they might about concessions to the right, progressives have proven more amenable to compromise. The result of this dynamic–one side negotiating in relative good faith, the other not–has been a rightward drift where today’s Democrats act like George H.W. Bush-era Republicans and Republicans act like Biblical/free market fundamentalists. While these shifting goalposts have been a constant source of anger on the left, leftists have largely sucked it up and voted for Democrats even as the chasm between their own priorities and those of the party’s lawmakers continued to yawn. And when small-scale revolts do happen–see Nader, Ralph, 2000 Presidential Campaign of–the Democrats use the fallout as a cudgel, blaming the defectors for giving away votes that party seems to think it owns by right rather than point the finger at their own candidates who, by and large, don’t even bother to pay lip service to leftist concerns.
To be taken seriously, you can’t be taken for granted, and that’s what the Democratic Party has done with the progressive portion of its constituency. Military adventures continue, corporate malfeasance goes unpunished, the gulf between rich and poor expands, but, hey, at least Obama isn’t McCain, amirite? A concerted abstention at the ballot box by progressives *might* make Democratic candidates wary of taking this group as a given and turn the party leftward, and since the “center” isn’t some ontologically secure position but a drifting point established through the negotiation of various political actors, it could slide to the left, too. This *might* reconfigure political discourse and then political reality, providing a mirror image to the right’s ultimatums that have given us what amounts to a bipartisan consensus in favor of scantly regulated plutocracy. Of course, it *might not*. If Democrats don’t respond and progressives don’t vote, we could be find ourselves in a right wing wonderland where a fanatical GOP seizes all three branches of government for the foreseeable future. The Democrats might successfully demonize and demoralize the insurgents as they did in 2000. Or even if such a scheme does rejuvenate a newly progressive Democratic Party, we could wind up with aggressive gridlock (although it’s hard to imagine it being substantially worse than what we have now).
My point isn’t necessarily that leftists shouldn’t vote in November, but that there is a pragmatic logic to abstention, not just a dogmatic one. In his caricatures, Wills falls prey to false necessity, a fallacy that, ironically, Unger has dedicated a substantial part of his career to exploring. According to the concept of false necessity–or, more pedantically, “anti-necessitarian social theory”–society is much more malleable than we typically give it credit for. The organization of our societies is not predetermined by our genes, our histories, our geographies, our whatever. Our societies can change in radical ways, and these changes are not steered by immutable laws of social behavior, but by our own efforts. Through this lens, it criticizes the tendencies toward self-declared inevitability you find in liberal democracy, Marxism, and capitalism.
In his assumptions, Wills accepts the current political terrain as a given. These are the Democrats, these are the Republicans, and we can’t hope to remake them (or, god forbid, introduce other options). He tells us we “should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate,” but doesn’t even ponder the possibility that forms of political action outside the ballot box–and refusing to vote is such a political action–could alter the shape of the parties themselves. To accept the two-headed hydra of corporately financed parties is to accept a false necessity as a true one, and to embrace defeatism. The game I’d like to play (and, I think, Professor Unger would join me in this) is a broader one, one where we don’t just slow the bleeding as moneyed interests continue their purchase of our democracy but instead hold our leaders accountable for their allegiances, whether or not a (D) or an (R) follows their name.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Pic from Quick Meme.
Is a strategy of abstention the best course of action? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s not the unreflective tantrum that Wills makes it out to be. And while Wills is correct that you never get a complete tabula rasa, sometimes you get something close. The right-wing Reagan resurgence established its intellectual roots in the aftermath of the seemingly suicidal campaign of Barry Goldwater. Might the Democratic Party require a similar self-immolation to actually become a source of meaningful change? I really don’t know. But if what we’ve seen over the past few years is really is the best the Dems can do, perhaps the left should at least consider the notion that the party’s best isn’t good enough and think about what steps might be necessary to quit being taken for granted.