Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger


Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 10/9/08]

It saddens me to see people I highly respect spouting nonsense. That’s unfortunately the case with Howard Zinn and Greta Christina, who’ve both embraced the memes (“Wait until after the election to pressure the Dems” and “This is the most important election ever”) I discussed in my post Why the hell are progressives enthusiastic about Obama?

Here’s Zinn:

So, yes, I will vote for Obama, because the corrupt political system offers me no choice, but only for the moment I pull down the lever in the voting booth.

Before and after that moment I want to use whatever energy I have to push him toward a recognition that he must defy the traditional thinkers and corporate interests surrounding him, and pay homage to the millions of Americans who want real change.

And here’s Greta (who I’ll address more fully in a separate post):
If you disagree with Obama about one or more issues, then — once he’s elected — by all means, make your voice heard. Scream and shout. Hold his feet to the fire. As a citizen, that’s more than just your right — that’s your job. And if you think we should have a strong third party, then by all means, work to build it from a local level up.

But this election is way too important to screw around with.

Please don’t fail to act because you can’t act perfectly.

I think I addressed these arguments pretty fully in my previous post, but I do have one thing to add to the part about how we should wait until after the election to put pressure on the Democrats.

My problem with this argument, and the reason why I think it’s the same as doing nothing, is that the only leverage we really have over politicians is at election time. It doesn’t take a political science degree to know that getting elected is their foremost concern, and justifiably so. But if you signal that you’ll vote for them pretty much no matter what they do, that tells them that they can safely blow you off. They know that they only have to be a tiny bit better than the other guy to get your support.

And there’s no need to speculate about that, by the way, because the Democratic party comes right out and says it. As Stanford professor (and Obama supporter) Lawrence Lessig remarked a few months back about Obama’s support for the FISA bill:

When you talk to people close to the campaign about this, they say stuff like: “Come on, who really cares about that issue? Does anyone think the left is going to vote for McCain rather than Obama? This was a hard question. We tried to get it right. And anyway, the FISA compromise in the bill was a good one.”

It’s instructive to compare this with how the Republicans treat their base. Look at how McCain’s rhetoric constantly vacillates between moderate and hard-right conservative. He’s engaged in a delicate balancing act where he tries to keep the far-right base happy without making the rest of the country think he’s crazy. Why does he feel the need to do that, whereas Democrats seem completely comfortable taking the left for granted? Because McCain know he has to keep the base happy, or they might stay home on election day. Or even if they do hold their noses and vote for him, they won’t be very enthusiastic about it, won’t donate time or money, won’t convert their friends/family/coworkers, etc. Many conservatives, for some odd reason, see McCain as a closet moderate, and if he does anything to reinforce that notion then they might not turn out for him. Why do you think he took on Palin as his running mate? There were multiple reasons, but one of them was certainly to reassure the religious right, a group that was until then pretty tepid toward McCain.

I’m not saying don’t go out and protest for single-payer health care, or an end to the war, or anything else. I’m just asking, even if progressives do actually try to push Obama in a more progressive direction after the election (which I still highly doubt), what good will it do? He already knows he can pretty much ignore you, because you’ll have given up any leverage you had over him, any means of punishing him for doing the wrong thing. In fact, it’s entirely within reason that Obama would just use progressives a a rhetorical punching bag to show how “serious” and “independent-minded” he is, as he has already done on issues like telecom immunity.

So, my response to people like Greta who say that “This is not the time to be taking a principled stand” is that this is precisely the time to do it, in fact the only time it matters. Withholding our votes is really the only way to show the Democratic Party that there will be negative consequences for ignoring us. I’m not saying we should hold out for perfect candidates (in fact I think the suggestion that Greens and others do insist on perfection from candidates is a straw man), but that’s no reason to set the bar as low as we all to often do. It’s far from a perfect solution, but I have yet to see anything else proposed that doesn’t perpetuate the status quo indefinitely due to more or less relying on Democratic politicians to doing the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts, which will probably never happen.


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