Bullshit Philosophy

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

Posts Tagged ‘Democratic Party’

Kucinich won’t challenge Obama in 2012 primaries

Posted by Kevin on August 13, 2010

“White House spokesman Robert Gibbs may have criticized attacks from what he called the “professional left,” but presumed member-in-good-standing Rep. Dennis Kucinich said today he won’t challenge President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries.” -David Jackson, USA Today

This is disappointing, but I can’t say I blame him, for the same reason I was willing to forgive his vote for the healthcare “reform” bill. It’s not fair to expect him to be a martyr when there’s not going to be a significant movement to back him up, and the fact is that liberals are still in love with Obama, and Kucinich would be persona non grata with them if he did mount a primary challenge. For this reason and others, it’s unlikely that anyone would be able to mount a serious primary challenge, at least from the Left.

Oh wait, I’m sorry, I can hear progressive Dems telling me already that they’re not “in love” with Obama, that instead they’re “disappointed” with him to varying degrees, but they still “support” him, want his agenda (which in theory they oppose on many counts) to “succeed,” won’t consider seriously opposing him, and wouldn’t dream of not voting to reelect him. Whenever this “loyal opposition” actually runs a serious risk of causing a bill or candidate to be defeated (in other words, of having an actual effect), they immediately pull back out of fear of “undermining” the Party. This happened at one point in the healthcare debate, and unfortunately included people like Howard Dean (and Kucinich, for that matter) whose courage I initially praised in my post on the cowardice of Bernie Sanders. They then shrug and say, “At least we beat the Republicans.”

So I really don’t see how the “loyal opposition” people are at all better than the people who say that Obama is the greatest President since FDR. I’m not trying to put words in people’s mouths, but to me, the two positions are indistinguishable because they have the same effect: an implicit declaration that they will never attempt to hold Obama accountable for his actions, and that he therefore has no reason to listen to them. I really can’t blame people like Robert Gibbs for telling the Left to fuck off (as administration officials have done several times before). Why should anyone take their whining seriously when they’re so scared by the prospect of Republicans returning to power that they’ll support Obama and the Democrats no matter what they do?

Getting back to Kucinich, while I understand his decision not to oppose Obama, I really don’t get his stated reason for doing so. From the article linked above: “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” This makes no sense considering that the person Democrats, including Kucinich, will be rallying around radically expanded one war, maintained the status quo in another, bombed several other countries, and who knows, maybe we’ll be at war with Iran by the time he’s up for reelection. This is what Democrats will be “coming together” to support.

So it would seem that Kucinich’s role will be to give progressive cover to mass murder and keep opponents of the wars corralled in the Democratic Party. They wouldn’t want those psychopathic Republicans to win, after all. Sarah Palin is a crazy fascist and gets off on hurting people, unlike President Obama, who is a sensible centrist doing the best he can. He only blows up Afghan children with the best of intentions.


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Bernie Sanders: The Most Disappointing Senator

Posted by Kevin on February 15, 2010

Many people on the Left would probably look at me like I’m crazy for saying this, but I think Bernie Sanders is a major disappointment as a Senator. I don’t mean to suggest he’s a bad Senator, on the same level as, say, Joe Lieberman, from whom I doubt many progressives expected good things. I hate Lieberman as much as anyone else, but it’s not exactly shocking when he’s an asshole. Sanders, on the other hand, is someone for whom I had high hopes, and it therefore hurts to watch him fall short, as he did most recently in the healthcare debate.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanders is a hero to much of the Left, well-known even far from Vermont. That’s why Robert Greenwald gave him a web series, for instance. I noticed this most recently on my trip to back home to Illinois over winter break, when I visited my friends in the Peoria Area Peace Network. Every time his name came up, half the room would gush over him. At one point, I would’ve done it too. I agreed with (and still agree with) his positions and thought it was awesome having a socialist in Congress. As a supporter of third-party and independent candidates I liked that Sanders was an Independent and would potentially be less beholden to the Democratic leadership that so successfully corrals other progressives.

And yet I’m increasingly frustrated with Sanders. He seems more concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the Democratic Party than with supporting progressive policies. Like most progressives in Congress, he talks a good game but doesn’t really follow through on it.

This was something I first noticed in 2008 with his vocal support for Obama. I thought it was odd that Sanders was coming out so strongly for one of the primary backers of the Wall Street bailouts, of which Sanders was one of the primary opponents. And in fact I have yet to see any criticism from Sanders directly targeting Obama on that or any other issue. Instead, he frequently goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Democrats, or pulls his punches with them.

For instance, take this article by Sanders in The Nation. I more or less agree with the recommendations in the article, but notice who Sanders blames things on: the Republicans. The problem with the Democrats, he says, is that they “have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of ‘bipartisanship’ at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.” In this and other public statements, he isn’t afraid to mount a frontal assault on the GOP, but when it comes to the Dems the problems get blamed on someone else: Wall Street, lobbyists, Republican obstructionism, and so on.

I question how much of Sanders’ support for Obama and the Dems is calculation versus what he really believes. If he were more hostile to the Dems, it would probably cost him a lot of support from the progressive movement; indeed, his coziness with the Dems is probably a necessary component of his hero status with the movement, as opposed to the outcast status of someone like Ralph Nader.

Also, it’s pretty much an open secret that Sanders has an unofficial deal going with the Democratic Party: he doesn’t overtly antagonize them, and they don’t run anyone against him. Nader discussed this issue in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his 2000 campaign. Sanders had agreed to introduce Nader at a campaign stop in Montpelier (although he wouldn’t give an endorsement). However, Nader also invited Anthony Pollina, then the Progressive Party candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Sanders apparently wasn’t happy about this. From the book:

When I arrived at the bustling high school auditorium, with its tables, volunteers, and incoming audience, Bernie Sanders took me aside and in grave tones expressed his concern at my having invited Pollina to speak with us. Clearly he was worried that the Democrats, who had agreed no longer to seriously challenge Bernie (with one exception in 1996), thereby sparing him a three-way race, would see his association with Pollina as a hostile act to their party and their governor.

I expressed surprise. “Bernie,” I said, “Anthony was once your staff member, and there are no positions that I know where you are in disagreement.”

He acknowledged that but repeated his displeasure nonetheless. Going up to the stage with Bernie, I thought to myself that an Independent should not have to worry about such matters. Bernie graciously introduced me and described our work together. But he left the stage and departed in the middle of my speech before I asked Pollina to come up and give his precise, factual stem-winder. […]

[Brief aside: As I’ve written before, Pollina ran for governor again in 2008 (as an Independent, but for all intents and purposes still aligned with the Progressives). Sanders refused to endorse a candidate in that race, saying that he was too busy working to get Obama elected. Pollina came in second, ahead of the Democratic candidate.

Also, I couldn’t think of a way to work it into this post, but I stumbled on this 2008 video featuring some sharp criticism of Sanders from Nader. It also features a defense of Sanders from Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who inadvertently did a great job of convincing me not to vote for a Democratic Party hack like him if he gets the Dem nomination for governor this year.]

I tend to prefer courageous politicians, and my frustration with Sanders stems from the fact that he isn’t one. Many progressives would disagree with me; they admire “practical” politicians like Sanders and accuse people like me of being naive dreamers. They are adamantly opposed to drawing lines in the sand and instead say things like “We have to take what we can get,” or “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” They frame the conflict as one of pragmatism versus idealism. Often, though, I think it’s better framed as a conflict of courage versus cowardice, with all too many progressives ending up on the latter side because they won’t stand up for their beliefs. I would argue that all of their “practicality” hasn’t accomplished very much, instead empowering the proponents of fake reform (who, unlike progressives, aren’t afraid to play hardball).

In the healthcare debate, such “practicality” might have sanded a few rough edges off of a terrible bill, but nothing more. A few dials will be fiddled with, but the same system will stay in place; the insurance industry gets a massive subsidy, the pharmaceutical industry gets a sweetheart deal, and we’re no closer to single-payer than we ever were. (Oh, and preserving the Hyde Amendment became the official position of the Democratic Party. That’s one of the less-noticed but most-important parts of the healthcare debate: how the Dems basically dropped all pretense of being a party that supports reproductive justice.) “Practical” progressives shrug and say that it’s the best we can do. My response would be that this is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as Cenk Uygur put it, progressives “got rolled on healthcare because they had no intention of putting their foot down – and everyone knew it.”

Regarding courage, Dennis Kucinich’s conduct in the healthcare debate contrasts starkly with that of Sanders. Kucinich was one of only a couple progressive Dems to vote against the House bill because he thought it was a giveaway to the insurance industry disguised as reform. For the grievous crime of voting his principles instead of his party, he took a lot of shit from progressives. I remember seeing comments on his Facebook page actually accusing him of being right-wing and in league with the GOP. However, he can’t be accused of not trying to improve the bill. If the Kucinich amendment had been part of it (which would have made it easier for states to enact single-payer), I might have been willing to grudgingly support it. But Nancy Pelosi decreed that the amendment be taken out, and “practical” progressives didn’t protest at all.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn with Howard Dean. I was never a huge fan of Dean; I didn’t think he was as liberal as advertised. I did respect how he opposed the war in Iraq before it was fashionable to do so, but didn’t support his campaign. And my from what I’ve heard of his time as governor of Vermont, he was virtually indistinguishable from a moderate Republican. Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions of Dean comes from Bernie Sanders, quoted in David Sirota’s book The Uprising: “If there’s a lesson of the Howard Dean campaign, it is that the younger generation’s definition of ‘progressive’ is anyone who rips apart the other side. Dean was a moderate, yet he became the progressive candidate for president because people get off on stridency.”

So imagine my surprise to find Dean to the left of Sanders on healthcare. Dean, of course, was probably the most prominant member of the “Kill the Senate Bill” movement. And, like Kucinich, he took a lot of shit from progressives and from the Democratic Party.

Sanders, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to take a serious stand on much of anything. One positive thing I’ll say about Sanders is that he was one of the only progressives in Congress that actually extracted something tangible in return for his support, in the form of increased funding for community health centers. And according to that article, he was pushing a version of the Kucinich amendment, although I don’t know what ever became of it. Still, he voted for a bill that forces people to buy private insurance with virtually no cost control mechanism. No amount of money for community health centers will change that fact. It doesn’t change the fact that he backed down from a threat to vote against a bill without a public option. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that Sanders cowardly withdrew his single-payer amendment in the face of Republican obstructionism (because heaven forbid he inconvenience the Democratic leadership by delaying passage of the bill).

People like Sanders are progressive in their beliefs, but not in their actions. It doesn’t matter very much how progressive a politician’s beliefs are if he or she won’t stand up for them. This is what makes Bernie Sanders no different from most of the other progressive Democrats in Congress who promise great things and then predictably cave in the end. That doesn’t mean I think progressives should never compromise, but the reason no one in Washington takes progressives seriously is because everyone knows that they will accept a bad deal rather than stand and fight for something better. Sometimes it’s better in the long run to fight for what’s right and lose than to cave and pat ourselves on the back for our “pragmatism.”

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Thoughts on the “public option”: bad policy and bad politics

Posted by Kevin on August 30, 2009

“I also understand the term used often by our hero Ted Kennedy, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. However, in this case, I’d like to turn that spin around and say that, in the instance of the public option, half-assed and inadequate is the enemy of the necessary and the acceptable.” –Steve Steffens [article link]

In comments to my last post dealing with healthcare, I was criticized (rightly, as I’ll explain) for supporting a public option. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my thoughts on the issue.

I’m definitely a single-payer supporter, and while I’ve never been one of those progressives who says “Single-payer isn’t going to happen right now, so lets not even bother talking about it,” at the time of that post I thought the public option was an acceptable compromise, at least better than doing nothing. But the more I’ve read about it, the less sure I’ve been.

These days, I’m of the opinion that it might be better to just hold out for single-payer, and that as terrible as the status quo is, the substantial risks associated with even a well-designed public option (let alone the crappy bill that will almost certainly come out of Washington) could make doing nothing the better choice. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to the public option, more like ambivalent; I wouldn’t see it as a bad thing if a decent public plan passed, but I’m not really willing to expend any effort on its behalf.

It’s amazing to me how virtually everyone who believes in the basic concept of universal healthcare agrees that single-payer is the best way to achieve it, and yet even among very progressive people it’s seen as almost taboo. If they mention it at all, it’s almost always along the lines of, “Well yeah, in a perfect world we’d have single-payer, but…”

But what? But, as “progressive” Congressman Henry Waxman put it when asked why he removed his co-sponsorship of H.R. 676, the House single-payer bill, “It isn’t going to happen.” We see this often from politicians like Waxman, and Obama as well: they support single-payer when they’re out of power, but once they get any actual ability to implement it they suddenly start backtracking, talking about how “we need to be realistic”. Gosh, it’s almost as if they aren’t really serious about it and they’re just telling us what we want to hear!

Still, he’s absolutely right; I think we can be pretty certain that a single-payer bill, even if by some miracle it passed the House, stands little-to-no chance of surviving the Senate. But instead of insisting on what they know is right, many like Waxman are rallying around a “compromise” plan that’s far more complicated and expensive, and far less effective, even in the best case scenario.

I think progressives made a huge mistake in giving up on single-payer so easily, in not even putting it on the table. There is no “right” time to start talking about it. It might not pass today, but if we want it to pass in the future then we need to be laying the groundwork now, and at least keep the idea alive until then. This is the position of Dick McCormack, one of my state senators and primary sponsor of a single-payer bill here in Vermont. Even though by his own admission the bill is going nowhere, he says it’s important to keep people talking about it, and keep its failure from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I’ve said before, if nobody’s at least talking about a given position, that alone guarantees it will never happen.

Even if you disagree with me on the efficacy of the public option, I think it’s clear that by compromising so early, progressives ensured that they’d have trouble getting even that much, that the final plan would be watered down even further. Progressives have a long proud history of ignoring one of the basic rules of negotiation: asking for twice as much as what you want in the hope of bargaining down to something you can live with. Instead, we start from a compromise position, and then we’re surprised at being expected to tone things down further. As a result, instead of single-payer being the Left position and a strong public option being the compromise, the public option is the Left position and Blue Dog position is the compromise.

But isn’t the public option at least a step in the right direction? I won’t get into the specifics of what I think its problems are, because others have done it a lot better than I could. Here is a great article from Physicians for a National Health Program explaining the problems with the public option and why we should insist on single-payer instead.

Generally, I think the public option is very hard to do right, and given the current Congress anything that could actually pass will almost certainly not be done right. In fact, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the final plan will even have a public option, or do much of anything other than funnel money to the insurance and drug companies. (Some, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, argue that Obama and the Dem leadership were never really serious about having a public option in the bill and planned from the beginning to bargain it away in order to placate the lobbies.)

In addition, as the PNHP article points out, there’s no reason to believe that incrementalism would somehow lead to single-payer, as some proponents of the public option argue. That hasn’t happened anywhere it’s been tried; I would argue that minuscule reform of this type just has the effect of delaying real reform. Democratic politicians are the experts at this: doing just enough to shut people up for a little while, without seriously challenging the interests of their corporate backers.

If the public option does fail, then in addition to creating an enormous, entirely deserved backlash against the Democrats it will probably sour the public on the basic idea of universal health care. This is already happening in regard to the stimulus and government intervention in the economy, as Chris Bowers argues at Open Left:

Whether or not the Democratic trifecta actually passes progressive legislation, the legislation that is passed and the policies that are followed will still be perceived as progressive. We simply can’t avoid that.

For example, right now the stimulus package pretty much equals left-wing economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people. If it doesn’t produce results, we are all going to see our ideas become discredited in the eyes of the American public, even if we thought policies of the Democratic trifecta did not go nearly far enough. The country is never going to say “well, that idea didn’t work, so let’s try a more extreme version of it.” People just don’t think that way in America.

Given the inadequacy of the public option and the improbability of passing single-payer on the national level in the near future, where do we go from here? I think we need to shift attention to the state level, where there’s often a much greater possibility of getting real reform. The main thing to do on the national level is to keep the federal government from standing in the way of state efforts to do the right thing. A key part of this is making sure the Kucinich amendment, which would make it easier for states to pass single-payer, makes it into the final healthcare reform bill.

We also need to work on reforming the Senate, which is obviously the main obstacle to real healthcare reform (and progressive reform in general) on the national level, pretty much no matter which party is in charge. David Sirota points out that it’s unresponsive by its very design, giving enormous weight to a group of Senators representing an extremely small number of Americans. As a result, Sirota says, the healthcare debate is being controlled by a small handful of legislators from small, rural states. The first step to reforming the Senate, Tom Geoghegan argues, is to get rid of the filibuster, the primary weapon of the opponents of reform. This entails a bloody battle, but it’s absolutely necessary.

And, of course, we need to ignore the false promise of bullshit “incremental” reform that just tinkers around the edges, and support policies that go to the root of our problems. In addition, we need to be suspicious of politicians like Obama who care more about ensuring a legislative victory for themselves than they do about actually doing something substantive.

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“Moderate” Democrats are the problem, not the Right

Posted by Kevin on June 12, 2009

Chris Bowers of Open Left (via AlterNet) has a great post on heath care reform, the “public option,” and how it’s more important for progressives to go after the so-called “moderate” Democrats in Congress (a totally misleading term referring to Dems whoring themselves out to the health insurance industry; i.e. the Blue Dogs, Evan Bayh, Arlen Specter, and so on) than it is to attack conservatives. From Bowers:

Here is a message that progressive organizations and media outlets need to start sending to all Democratic party committees and members of Congress:

We are done attacking Republicans until you pass a public option for health care.

Until a public option is passed, I don’t want to hear about the latest hate and idiocy spewing from Limbaugh, or Tancredo, or Palin, or Gingrich, or whoever. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to attack them for it, either. Because, right now, Republicans are not the obstacle to progressive governance. Instead, Democrats who refuse to support a public option are the obstacle.

I recommend reading the whole post, with which I couldn’t agree more.

It’s the Democrats that control most of the levers of power these days, so failure to enact progressive legislation lies entirely with them. They can’t blame opposition from the Republicans anymore, who have almost no influence at the national level (although you wouldn’t know that from media coverage). Rather, the blame lies entirely with the group of corporate Dems frequently described as “moderates” or “centrists” (thanks to whom conservatives still essentially have a majority in Congress), and with the party that refuses to challenge them.

The Democratic leadership’s excuse du jour for watering down legislation is the need to appease these “moderates,” yet they steadfastly oppose any public pressure on them from the progressive movement, let alone primary challenges aimed at replacing them with progressives. A case in point is Arlen Specter, whose reelection Obama has said he’ll support literally no matter what Specter does. Why do they work so hard to keep people like this in office? Is it perhaps because it offers a convenient way to avoid doing the right thing, like in the current health care debate?

As Bowers puts it:

We should be naming names, flying to their home states to hold large rallies, and lining up primary challengers against public-option averse Democrats. Instead, our leaders are holding fundraisers for them, pressuring their primary opponents, and hosting dinners in their honor. Kind of makes you wonder how serious even those Democrats in favor of the public option are about change. [emphasis added]

If you doubt this, then consider that the tolerance by Obama and the rest of the Democratic leadership of opposition from the “moderates” on issues like the public option stands in stark contrast to their willingness to bully progressives on war funding. As the Huffington Post reported just today, administration officials are threatening to withhold support at reelection from freshmen in Congress who vote against the supplemental war spending bill. This dynamic – coddling of “moderates,” bullying of progressives – demonstrates loud and clear the real priorities of the Democratic establishment.

All of this perfectly illustrates why I come down so much harder on Democrats and their progressive enablers than Republicans. I hate Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly as much as the next progressive, and I can see the appeal in attacking them due to the easy target they present and how egregiously offensive they are, but focusing on them while treating corporate Dems as a lesser evil isn’t going to bring us any closer to change. As I’ve said previously, the Dems are “frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to.” On many issues right now, the Dems are the ones standing in our way; they’re the ones we should be fighting.

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“Common Purpose” and the co-optation of the progressive movement

Posted by Kevin on April 22, 2009

Probably the thing that disgusted me the most about the 2008 election cycle was how many so-called “progressive” organizations seemed to be basically just appendages of the Democratic Party. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course, but I hadn’t realized the extent previously. Even now, many of the campaigns of groups like MoveOn are framed around “supporting President Obama’s agenda.” There really isn’t much of an independent progressive movement in this country, which is why we’re having so much trouble gaining traction on any number of issues.

If you doubt that all too many “progressive” organizations are slaves to Obama and his corporatist agenda, this article from Ben Smith at Politico should dispel any illusions you had. It describes a group called “Common Purpose,” which brings together “the top officials from a range of left-leaning organizations, from labor groups like Change to Win to activists like MoveOn.org” and White House officials. The purpose is message coordination, which is not something to which I’m inherently opposed, but it’s evident that in the present instance it’s a mechanism for keeping “progressive” groups toeing the White House line.

It’s not hard to tell how successful Common Purpose and similar groups have been in stifling progressive criticism of Obama. The major “progressive” organizations (to my knowledge at least) have largely ceded anger over the increasingly kleptocratic bank bailout to conservative teabaggers. And Jeremy Scahill reminds us that they’ve similarly sold out on Iraq and Afghanistan:

“…groups like the Center for American Progress and MoveOn, which portrayed themselves as anti-war during the Bush-era, are now supporting the escalation and continuation of wars because their guy is now commander-in-chief. CAP has been actively pounding the pavement in support of the escalation in Afghanistan, the rebranding of the Iraq occupation and, more recently, Obama’s bloated military budget, which the group said was “on target.” MoveOn has been silent on the escalation in Afghanistan and has devoted substantial resources to promoting a federal budget that includes a $21 billion increase in military spending from the Bush-era.

As another example, Smith’s article describes how several groups – including the Campaign for America’s Future and USAction – backed off from a campaign against the Blue Dog Democrats and the Evan Bayh faction in part at the urging of the White House: “The White House, however, was in the midst of discussions with members of the congressional Blue Dog caucus, and objected to the slogan, which was promptly changed, and the page describing the drive is gone from CAF’s website.”

“What is clear here is that CAP and MoveOn are now basically psuedo-official PR flaks targeting ‘liberals’ to support the White House agenda,” says Scahill. Why are the “progressive” groups doing this? As Jane Hamsher argues, they enjoy the illusion of having the ear of the President and they fear retribution if they don’t go along:

There’s a big problem right now with the traditional liberal interest groups sitting on the sidelines around major issues because they don’t want to buck the White House for fear of getting cut out of the dialogue, or having their funding slashed. Someone picks up a phone, calls a big donor, and the next thing you know…the money is gone. It’s already happened. Because that’s the way Rahm plays.

So what should we do about it? I don’t exactly know. I suppose some could argue that we need people like them working inside the system, but I’m not really convinced that it’s actually accomplishing anything in the current environment besides tarnishing ourselves by propping up the kleptocrats and giving their ideas a veneer of respectability. It would seem to me that one thing we need to seriously consider is whether to stop supporting the organizations involved with Common Purpose and similar groups who are selling us out to Obama and other Establishment Dems – i.e. stop donating money to them, unsubscribe from their email lists, stay away from events organized by them. I’ve already done that with several groups, such as MoveOn and Democracy for America, that I became disgusted with during the campaign because of their cheerleading for the Dems.

These “progressive” groups’ coziness with the Obama administration is the exact opposite of what needs to happen if we want to bring about real change. Currently, the pressure only seems to be coming from one direction, with Obama having every incentive to avoid radically restructuring the system. Instead of providing a fig leaf for status quo Democrats, we need to as Naomi Klein argues, “stop hoping and start demanding.” There needs to be an independent progressive movement focused not on electing Democrats, but on creating conditions under which whoever is in office has to implement progressive policies if they want to stay there.

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The differences between the parties are greatly exaggerated

Posted by Kevin on March 4, 2009

During the last election season many people talked about a supposed vast chasm of difference between Barack Obama and John McCain. This framing of national politics is ubiquitous in political commentary, and true in a number of areas, but also greatly exaggerated.

The media plays a large role in the creation of the frame, magnifying the contrast between the candidates to make the election more exciting so you’ll tune into their coverage, and also to distract attention from the issues that aren’t discussed because there’s no substantive difference between the candidates. Israel/Palestine, the Wall Street bailout, the drug war, American imperialism, etc. It also helps justify their exclusion of third-party and independent candidates from election coverage – who needs them when we’ve already got such a vigorous debate going with just the two main ones?

The two establishment parties, of course, have every incentive to make the other look like the Antichrist. People wouldn’t be very motivated to vote if they thought the election was just a choice between the right- and left-hand sock puppets, or they might consider supporting a third-party or independent candidate, and we wouldn’t want that.

In addition, progressive Obama supporters often justified their support for the candidate on these grounds – “Sure, he’s far from perfect, but there’s soooo much difference between him and McPain!” They could get borderline apocalyptic talking about the consequences of a McCain victory. The same argument is used by conservatives talking about Obama, both then and now (how many times have we heard Obama referred to as a socialist?).

All too typical in this regard from the progressive side is this statement from Greta Christina (in a post I’ve quoted previously):

This isn’t a “There’s no difference between the two candidates” situation. There is a massive difference between the candidates. On the war. On the regulation of the financial industry. On abortion. On gay rights. On health care. On the environment. On virtually every issue that matters to most progressives.

While that’s undoubtedly true on many (but not all, in my opinion) of the issues she cites, there were other issues where you practically needed a microscope to tell the candidates apart, where the disagreements are more rhetorical than substantive. Given Obama’s stacking of his administration with neoliberal economists and his backsliding on civil liberties, a more honest slogan for his campaign might have been “Continuity We Can Believe In.”

A good example of this is the occupation of Iraq. Admittedly, even I believed during the campaign that, while Obama’s position wasn’t nearly good enough, it was certainly an improvement over that of John “100 Years” McCain. And yet, according to the Huffington Post, McCain has now embraced Obama’s Iraq plan and says he would’ve done roughly the same thing. I guess the sky wouldn’t be falling after all if McCain had won, at least in regard to the Iraq issue.

Likewise, the rosy picture painted of Obama’s position, both then and now, by his supporters, including much of the “antiwar” movement – “He’s going to end the war!” – is a huge exaggeration. At least, depending on how you define “ending the war.” The latest reports indicate that Obama wants to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq, he’s just not going to call them “combat troops.” This is what the Washington establishment calls “ending the war.”

This isn’t exactly a surprise; Obama was pretty clear during the campaign that he wanted to leave a “residual force” in the country and had enormous “conditions on the ground” caveats even for his meager plan. So we’re still dealing with a large indefinite American presence in the country. And the troops that he does withdraw will likely just end up in a ramped-up war in Afghanistan. I’d really like to know what progressives think they’ve gained on this issue by electing Obama, and why they let him run as the “antiwar” candidate.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying there are no meaningful differences between the establishment parties. Just that on may issues the contrast is not as huge as some would like you to believe. My position is that, as Glenn Greenwald argued, “Critical political debates are at least as often driven not by the GOP/Democrat dichotomy, but by the split between the Beltway political establishment and the rest of the country.” Or, as David Sirota memorably put it, the real division isn’t between red and blue but between the Money Party and the People Party, with all too many Democrats winding up in the former.

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“Cynical Obama hater”?

Posted by Kevin on January 26, 2009

The title for this post comes from an email I received a few days ago, presumably from a reader, who had the following to say:

You should really stop being such a cynical Obama hater, you know, the best way to make sure nothing good happens is to keep telling yourself only bad things are going to happen under Obama. Why don’t you try to make things better, have some optimism already!

I didn’t really want to respond at first because I thought it was kind of a ridiculous assertion and I wasn’t sure it was worth taking the time to respond to, but on further reflection I realized that a reply might help to clarify a few things and keep him and others from misunderstanding my frequent criticism of Obama and the Democratic Party.

So, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a cynical Obama hater. I guess I can’t really reject the cynical part; it’s right in the name of the blog after all! I guess I am pretty cynical in the sense that I’m suspicious of the motives of Obama and the Democratic Party, and think Obama’s reputation in some quarters as a great progressive champion is almost entirely undeserved, but I’d say my cynicism is with good reason. The last time I was somewhat optimistic about the Dems was in 2006, when they took back Congress; a fat lot of good that did me. They couldn’t manage to stop or even slow down many of the Bush administrations crimes, and in many cases were complicit in them – this includes Obama. So you’ll have to forgive me for not taking them at their word that things are going to be different now, that Obama isn’t just another mushy-middle centrist politician. I’ll believe it when I see it.

As for being an Obama hater, that to me would be someone who criticizes Obama more or less no matter what he does, and I don’t really think that applies to me. I’m definitely an Obama critic, but I won’t deny that there have been encouraging signs from Obama in his first few days in office. The question is whether he’ll keep it up, or if he’ll come under the sway of the neoliberal and/or hawkish advisers he’s surrounded himself with as time goes on.

[That’s already pretty much happened on economic policy, as Obama’s top priority seems to be handing another $350 billion to Wall Street. Because that worked out so well the last time!]

For instance, it’s undeniably good that Obama issued an order on day one to close Guantanamo (and while we’re on the subject, that Obama’s appointed a number of people to the Justice Department and especially to the Office of Legal Council who oppose torture as well as the Bush admin’s monarchical view of executive power), but it’s still unclear what system the detainees will be tried under. What have we really gained if, as some are advising him, he just ends up trying the detainees in “national security courts” where “tainted” evidence (i.e. stuff gained through torture) can be used?

Likewise, I don’t know enough about the guy one way or the other to say for sure, but it seems encouraging that Obama picked George Mitchell for his Mideast envoy, showing that he might be more evenhanded in his approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict than his predecessors. And he just remarked in a speech today that the Gaza blockade should be ended. Still, this is Obama’s only concrete statements on the issue so far, and it’s still an open question as to what he’s actually going to do about any of it. Given both Obama’s past hostility to the Palestinians and that of many of the people around him (i.e. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel), once again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

That said, I certainly do tend to come down pretty hard on the Dems on this blog, probably harder than I do on Republicans/conservatives, but it’s not because I’m implacably opposed to the Dems or something. Rather, I’m just frustrated at the fact that they’re frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to. You don’t bring about change in that fact by being a groupie, you do it by criticizing them and/or withdrawing support when they do bad things and only praising them when they deserve it.

It also has to do with my desire to offer something in my writing that other people aren’t already saying, and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of groups and blogs to cheerlead for the Dems.

I will say that, as a Green Party supporter, there’s a danger for us in being perceived as too close to being “Obama haters.” One Democratic criticism I heard during the 2008 election campaign went something along the lines of, “Greens aren’t going to vote for a Democrat anyway, so there’s no point in courting them.” Being perceived as too knee-jerk critical could make it easier to write us off.

However, I think Obama lovers pose a much bigger threat to the progressive movement than the Obama haters. An Obama lover is the opposite of our earlier definition: this is someone who supports Obama and the Dems pretty much no matter what they do. These are the people like my father-in-law who, when faced with Obama’s vote for the FISA bill, immediately did a 180 in their position on warrantless wiretapping, or at least stopped seeing it as such a big deal.

This faction of progressives, the Cult of Obama Worship as I call it, has been the main source of my frustration in recent months. Obama is going to be under enormous pressure to maintain the status quo, and no change is going to happen if the pressure is only coming from the establishment forces. If you really want him to do good things, then the best thing you can do for him is to hold his feet to the fire and create conditions under which he has to implement progressive policies if he wants to stay in office.

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Progressive excuses for Democratic complicity in Israeli brutality

Posted by Kevin on January 19, 2009

I have to say that so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the American mainstream media’s handling of the Israel/Gaza conflict. It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, but there’s still a slightly greater willingness to question Israeli claims than in past conflicts. It’s too bad that that new found openness doesn’t extend to our political system, where overwhelming majorities of both parties in Congress still express lockstep support for Israel no matter what it does, and only peripheral actors like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are willing to speak out for the people of Gaza. Meanwhile Obama continues to hide behind his “only one President at a time” bullshit (as many others have noted, why doesn’t this extend to economic policy?).

[I was particularly disappointed by the silent complicity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the issue, as he’s one of my Senators and he’s supposed to be this great progressive crusader. Not one Senator, not even Bernie, was willing to publicly oppose the resolution supporting Israel’s attack.]

So lately I’ve been trying to figure out why the Democratic Party keeps granting knee-jerk support to Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and why the party rank and file, which overwhelmingly opposes the attack on Gaza, is largely unwilling to challenge them on the issue, often choosing instead to rationalize their party’s continuing attachment to the Israeli far right. The answers to both of these questions are closely linked, so forgive me for segueing back and forth between the two.

The primary response of many progressives when faced with Democratic intransigence on Israel/Palestine is a collective throwing up of the hands, claiming “There’s nothing we can do about it; AIPAC is just too powerful. Might as well live with it.” But the so-called “Israel lobby” isn’t some unstoppable force of nature. Groups like AIPAC are so disproportionately influential for a reason.

The main reason in this case is because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “one side of the debate (the AIPAC faction) is strong and aggressive in its criticisms and pressure tactics and the other side (the faction wanting an even-handed U.S. approach) is not.” I highly recommend reading his post in full, as well as this one from Juan Cole on roughly the same subject.

Democratic politicians have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the attack on Gaza as well as the broader Israeli occupation: they get the support of and contributions from AIPAC and its followers, knowing that the vast majority of the people on the other side might grumble about it but won’t turn against them. From Greenwald again:

Just as Congressional Democrats have known for the last eight years, Obama will know that there is only a price to pay when he acts contrary to the Republican and Beltway “centrist” agenda, but no price to pay when he acts contrary to the agenda of his most ardent supporters (because they won’t criticize him, because to do is to “tear him down,” “help Republicans,” act like a Naderite purist, etc. etc. etc.). That meek and deferential attitude — aside from being a wildly inappropriate and even dangerous way to treat a political leader — also ensures that one is irrelevant and taken for granted and one’s views easily ignored.

The solution, as he notes and as should be patently obvious, is to be willing to apply pressure to Democrats when their actions warrant it. We’ve already seen several instances in the transition where Obama was pulled to the left by progressive criticism. And, in my opinion, it involves a willingness to deny them our votes if they continue to support Israeli brutality.

But, all too many progressives are unwilling to do either of those things. Instead, they find some bullshit way to explain how the party had no other choice, or even how it’s really not so bad that the party frequently aligns itself with the Israeli far right.

A great article on this subject is “The Pragmatism of Ethnic Cleansing” by Steven Salaita. From the article:

I have seen countless times on the Internet and have heard even more frequently some variation of the following argument: “Obama had to court the Israel lobby in order to be elected; it’s part of presidential politics in the United States.” Bolder commentators suggest that it would be foolish to expect otherwise… Other liberals smugly accuse Obama’s skeptics of purism, which they say has no business in serious political conversations.

For one reason or another, many progressives see the Palestinian cause as a reasonable sacrifice in order to have a Democratic president. But as Salaita argues, “This concession may be something they’re prepared to live with, but we should remember that the Afghans and Palestinians have no choice.” American progressives aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences of the Israeli occupation (not directly, anyway), which might explain why they are often unwilling to make much of a fuss over Democratic complicity in it. (Salaita again: “I doubt Obama’s pragmatists would have been such staunch advocates of electoral realism if they, like the Palestinians, were being removed from their homes and confined to bounded ghettos.”)

In the case of Obama, whenever the issue came up during the campaign I would hear from his supporters some variation of “He doesn’t really believe that, he’s just saying it because he has to to get elected,” and/or “Once he’s in office he’ll be fair to the Palestinians.” I certainly hope that’s true, but I don’t know what they’re basing those statements on, other than faith. Some who make this argument, like Lisa Gans at the Huffington Post, claim that the reason the Israelis invaded Gaza when they did was because they wanted to get it out of the way before Obama took office, presumably because they were worried about how he might react. I’ll admit this does look slightly more plausible in light of the fact that it was announced today that Israeli troops will be out of Gaza by the time Obama’s inaugurated, but I ultimately find this argument unpersuasive. At best it’s a minor factor in Israel’s reasoning. Much more important is the upcoming Israeli elections, with both Kadima and Labor depending on the invasion to bump up their sagging poll numbers.

In any case, even if Obama doesn’t really believe what he’s plainly saying on the issue, I’d say that makes it worse, not better. As Arthur Silber points out, by making this argument his supporters are admitting that he’s a liar who isn’t willing to take a stand for what he believes in. Either that, or he’s a borderline sociopath who just doesn’t give a shit about Palestinian lives.

Given that, why should I believe he’ll be a good president? And why is it so hard for progressives to accept that maybe Obama just doesn’t care, that he’s not a closet progressive, and that perhaps he’s just another politician whose only concern is getting and holding onto power?

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Statement from Peter Welch on Gaza

Posted by Kevin on January 6, 2009

[Update I: Various edits made to this post.]

[Update II (1/10/09): In a surprise to absolutely no one, both houses of Congress this week passed resolutions voicing absolute support of Israel in its attack on Gaza. According to the roll call, Peter Welch voted for the House version (it passed by a voice vote in the Senate, so there’s no record of who did and didn’t vote for it). The text of the resolution contradicts even Welch’s milquetoast position below, making me wonder didn’t vote present if nothing else. The most likely explanation in my opinion is that he didn’t think about it much and just voted how Nancy Pelosi told him to vote, which from what I hear is pretty common with Welch. He’s not exactly known for his courage.]

Today I received an email from Rep. Peter Welch’s (D-VT) office on Israel’s attack on Gaza:

I have long supported a two-state solution as the only viable path to peace in the Middle East. The renewed violence in Gaza only sets back the prospects of achieving the two-state solution and, with it, lasting peace. It also intensifies the suffering of the people living there.

I support an immediate cease fire – and end to rocket attacks targeting Israelis and an end to Israeli military action in Gaza – and a return to the negotiating table. I also support the free passage of international relief convoys into Gaza to provide humanitarian assistance and relief to the population.

The human tragedy that is occurring in Gaza will only end when both sides recognize that their peace and prosperity will not be achieved through acts of violence, but through negotiation.

This pretty much illustrates the problems I noted in my report on the Burlington protest. It’s good that Welch supports a ceasefire, but once again there’s the false equivalency and the unwillingness to blame anyone for the crisis, and no mention of the blockade. I don’t get the impression from this statement that he’s put a whole lot of thought into the issue or feels a lot of engagement with it.

Another thing that bugged me about his statement, as with Leahy and Sanders, was the lack of any mention of concrete actions they’ve taken or are willing to take to bring about a ceasefire. They all “support” a ceasefire but won’t necessarily do anything to actually get one. Remember, one of the oldest tricks in politics is to support something in principle but oppose its implementation every step of the way.

As I’ve said previously, positions like Welch’s are an improvement over those of all too many other Democrats. Sadly, though, this sort of position is probably the best we’re going to get from the Democratic Party without some sort of massive grassroots pressure that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Although the latest polling data (via Glenn Greenwald) shows that Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose Israel’s attack on Gaza, to my knowledge it hasn’t translated into widespread criticism of the Democratic leadership. This issue just isn’t a priority for many progressives.

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Report on Gaza protest

Posted by Kevin on January 1, 2009

So on Tuesday I attended a protest in Burlington against Israeli brutality in Gaza organized by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. In the process we visited the offices of our Congressional delegation (Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders) inquiring about their positions and demanding they condemn the attack. [This is probably the best news story I’ve been able to find on it.] As a recent transplant to Vermont, I wasn’t really familiar with any of their positions on the issue beforehand, so this was a learning experience for me.

Good news first: I was glad that all three offices actually sent people out to meet with us, and that except for Welch they had statements prepared. That in itself was a big change from some parts of Illinois I’ve lived in. I went to undergrad in Dennis Hastert’s district while he was still House Speaker, and his office frequently refused to meet with opponents, at one point refusing to even accept a petition from antiwar activists. So I have a lot of respect for politicians whose staffers will meet with people they might not necessarily agree with.

I haven’t been able to find Leahy or Sanders’ statements on their websites [which unfortunately indicates that this issue isn’t a very big priority for them, especially in Welch’s case], so I’m going off of memory when I refer to them – and therefore I don’t have much in the line of direct quotes.

In their defense, I will say that the statements were a lot better than the “near-unanimous support for Israel” by other prominent Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid [or for that matter my former senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, both hardcore pro-Occupation partisans]: that Israel’s massive aerial assault is totally justified by Hamas’ primitive rocket fire, and the resulting loss of innocent life is entirely the fault of Hamas. So, I’m not saying Leahy and Sanders are sociopathic douchebags like Reid and Pelosi.

Still, I found myself pretty dissatisfied with Leahy and Sanders’ positions. I’m realistic enough not to expect that they’ll embrace Dennis Kucinich’s position (outlined in the above article), but I still hoped for a little better. Not only did they not go far enough, but they also embraced some lousy framing of the conflict. They both bent over backwards trying to please all sides, to not criticize Israel too much.

For instance, even while calling for a ceasefire, they both felt the need to preface their statements with something along the lines of, “Israel has the right to defend itself, but…” Both included statements like, “Oh, it’s horrible what both sides are doing.” Several of the protesters criticized them for trying to create a false equivalency between the two sides, as if one side doesn’t have an almost complete monopoly on the use of force, and as if the other side isn’t resisting an illegal and horrific occupation. That may not justify Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, but the context does pretty much destroy any claim of equality between the two sides, as well as any Israeli pretext of “self-defense.”

Here’s a good quote on the matter from Titus North at Electronic Intifada:

I know that it is customary for many to equally condemn both sides whenever violence flares up in the conflict, but there is nothing equal between the two sides. The Palestinians have for decades been subjected to occupation, disappropriation, assassination and siege, always with massive suffering to civilians, and are expected to accept it without lifting a finger. Should the Palestinians put up any resistance, Israel feels free to launch any scale of attack, secure in the knowledge that at most it will be subject to calls for “restraint” and condemnation of violence on “both sides.” While I do not like the rockets that get fired from Gaza, as long as we as Americans provide the military, financial and diplomatic support that makes the Israeli occupation and siege possible I feel that we as Americans are in no position to condemn the Palestinian resistance.

And another good one from Robert Fisk:
…we demand security for Israel — rightly — but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was “under siege” — as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Leahy’s statement in particular criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” attack, which sounded good at first glance until I noticed that he’s still saying an attack was on some level justified, if only it had been more “proportionate,” whatever that means.

Sanders’ statement argued for the need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but neither senator made any mention whatsoever of the cause of that crisis: Israel’s blockade. There’s not going to be a lasting resolution to the crisis without an end to the blockade, but apparently that would involve too much criticism of Israel for their tastes.

We also urged them to vote to end military aid to Israel. None of the staffers had anything to say one way or the other on the matter. I’m not optimistic.

American policy isn’t going to change unless we demand it. I strongly urge everyone reading this to write to and/or call your representatives and senators (as well as the Obama transition team) demanding that they publicly come out against Israel’s brutality in Gaza. Also consider signing this open letter to Obama from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation urging a change in Israel/Palestine policy. Write letters to the editor, and see if there’s any actions near you (or consider organizing one if there isn’t). Most importantly, educate the people around you on the conflict, and call them out if they spread misinformation or use bad framing.

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