Presidential horse race: ch-ch-ch-changes?

Posted January 22, 2008

Hello out there in internet land!

Some of you may have noticed that we’re knee deep in the so-called “political season.” Yes, that’s right, that’s when us ordinary folks are invited into debates about the issues of the day. Does this mean Warren Buffet’s attempts to stabilize the bond market house of cards? The US Navy’s clumsy attempt to manufacture a threat from Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz (through which almost all the world’s petroleum reaches market? Nope, it’s a presidential election year, and the main item on the menu is ChangeTM. Eager consumers of ChangeTM should be thrilled to learn it’s available in both Regular and Diet versions. Which version of ChangeTM do you like best? Check it out:

But seriously, as fun and tempting as it can be to mock the electoral season as a coping strategy, we’ve gotta face the fact that many of our co-workers, neighbors, families, and classmates already have tickets to the horse-race and are going to be gripping their seats even tighter in the coming months, squinting at the track. So what does the Left – broadly defined as those of us who orient towards building social movements with long-term, transformative s vision – make of this?
I should note here that I began writing this article as an exploration of Cynthia McKinney’s campaign at the beginning of January, and have since been sidelined by other commitments. The unfortunate thing about procrastination is that as the world changes, you’ve gotta keep going back and changing what you wrote. So I am kicking myself to finish, this afternoon, and be done with it! I’ll also preface by adding that this is my personal opinion – Solidarity is working on a front-page feature on the prospects for independent politics in 2008 that will be the product of our collective deliberation.

During this time, two socialists – one in an organization, one independent – have written perspectives which deserve a response. I hope to take up the arguments, which I have serious problems with, presented by both of these comrades – not as an attack, but as part of an ongoing conversation.

Stan Goff, who I respect immensely as a writer and antiwar activist, wrote a disappointing endorsement of far-right populist Ron Paul. Then, yesterday, Jamala Rogers – who I respect immensely as both a community activist and as a national leader of the Black Radical Congress and Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organizacion Socialista del Camino para Libertad (whew!) authored a piece called “The Electoral Dilemma.” Jamala gave a great presentation this summer at the US Social Forum during a session co-sponsored by several revolutionary organizations, including Solidarity and Freedom Road.

Stan Goff hinges his endorsement of Ron Paul on two political arguments. First, none of the Democratic candidates will end the occupations. This is clearly correct based on their words and actions while in office. Second, the Left should orient to this election cycle on a single issue: doing whatever possible to end those occupations. This dangerous road imagines we can separate the United States’ “foreign” and “domestic” policies, which are really two sides of the same coin. Even more importantly, this argument is based on Stan’s hypothetical “President Paul.”

Well, we should be clear that there’s no way in hell Ron Paul is going to get elected president. The Left would do better to deal with the reality of the “Paul presidential campaign” – which at its base is populated by closeted and open white supremacists, right-wing conspiracy nuts, Christian fundamentalists, and other fun characters. I

Ron Paul supporters
at MLK Parade??

interacted with these clowns yesterday morning when they showed up at the MLK Parade (“Is this a counter-demonstration?” a comrade joked.) On this basis, the practical effect of Stan Goff’s advice is that the Left would entangle itself in building a grassroots “States’ Rights,” anti-immigrant, anti-choice, anti-tax movement. For more on a basic Ron Paul, check out Why the Left Should Reject Ron Paul by Sherry Wolf, reprinted here at CounterPunch from International Socialist Review. Solidarity will soon put online our own popular anti-Paul leaflet, aimed at disoriented activists who’ve fallen in with that crowd.

Jamala’s statement, I think, errs in the opposite
direction in two important ways. First, her article emphasizes the importance of reforms in this country while largely remaining silent on the occupations, aside from a vague suggestion that a Democrat “may influence whether and when the US withdraws.” We heard the same argument from other voices back in 2006, regarding congress, and I’d like to see the “influence!” Strong military presence in the Mid-East is absolutely central to US Imperial strategy at this point: not something a mere (D) in the oval office will have an impact on.

The Democrats and Republicans are equally committed to capitalism and imperialism. During the decades of US domination following World War II, Democrats have tended to be more inclined towards military force than Republicans, though not always to building up the military. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Georgia boy Jimmy Carter and the architect of US Central Command, is a key endorser of Obama. Defense contractors jumped the sinking Republican ship to vote with their bucks and become a major donor to the Clinton campaign.

Given its declining economic power, the US military occupation of the world’s oil supply is vital to maintaining the standing of the United States as the world’s boss. There is no “exit strategy” that would not hurt US imperialism far more than the Democrats would like. Of course, another issue is at stake

victim of Clinton’s sanctions
against Iraq

We Are the Poorsbesides geopolitical maneuvering. We should also ask the morbid question: in terms of real human suffering, are we going to compare ~1,000,000 Iraqis killed by Bill Clinton’s “containment” with the ~1,000,000 killed by George Bush’s war? In the context of the Democrats’ actual track record – which includes their refusal to cut war spending – why should we think that they’re any more likely to initiate withdrawal than a Republican victor? And I would be frankly embarrassed to explain to comrades in Asia that Barack Obama’s calls for bombing Iran and Pakistan are merely “troubling views on foreign affairs”…!

However, lacking a real alternative, some socialists and other leftists have, since the 1930s, attempted to enter a “tactical alliance” with the Democrats. The reasons for this vary from a strategy of breaking the supposed political hegemony of the “ultra-right” Republican Party to an argument that’s sort of the negation of my own issue with Ron Paul: Looking at the social base of the Democratic Party, we find our own communities, and those of our friends! African-Americans, still one of the most politically unified voting blocks, overwhelmingly get behind Democrats. Union members and even the unorganized working class less so, but likewise. Women also tend towards Democrats. The environmental and other social movements have also largely been sucked up by the Democrats.

One of Jamala Rogers’ ideas for the Left is to involve ourselves with Clinton, Obama, or Kucinich – “where most progressive and left-leaning forces find themselves” – and push the campaigns left. But this orientation and struggle has been tried for decades, only leading to social movements getting further stuck in the swamp of the Democratic Party! When you see your friends flailing around in quicksand, the answer is not to jump in after them… While the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson 1980s presidential campaigns had inspiring elements, I’m wondering why this is still upheld. It failed to build a lasting non-electoral movement or push the Democrats to the left or even stood in the way of Ronald Reagan or Bush I’s election – the “spoiler” argument often deployed against the Green Party.

So, I’m now at a point where I can give my own two cents. First, a disclaimer: I think we need to be very humble about the impact of the radical Left in this day and age. The programmes or endorsements of small, socially isolated left organizations, whether for Democrats or Greens, are nowhere near decisive in the country’s political alignment! This does not mean we should stop doing the best work we can – by linking existing social movements, introducing anti-racist, feminist and anti-imperialist analysis, and contributing to new organizing. But we should see our activity mainly in the context of trying stuff out, learning lessons, and planting theoretical, strategic and organizational seeds.

Cynthia McKinney at an
Antiwar march

Having said that, Cynthia McKinney’s campaign for the Green Party nomination is very exciting. (Keep in mind – Solidarity has not made an endorsement!). She actually has experience as a candidate and an elected official, regularly works with what exist of social movements in the United States, is a skilled orator, and has the right political positions on almost every key issue. Most importantly, she was a well-known progressive Democrat, and made a decision to leave… not just to run as an independent, but to build and alternative. When somebody decides to remove themselves from the machinery of our class enemies, we have a responsibility to lend our voices, hands, and feet in supporting them.

There are two potential hiccups that should be acknowledged. The first is that, in the event both Barack Obama and Cynthia McKinney win their parties’ nominations, her support might wither and she would face extreme pressure to step back from the race. (Personally, I think it’s unlikely that they’ll let Obama get the nomination.) Even barring an Obama candidacy, it’s also possible that the general pressure to “get over the last eight years” will limit McKinney’s reach. However, I think it is definitely too soon to make any predictions! Either way, I think the left should remain committed to supporting McKinney; but the level of priority might need to be measured.

Cynthia McKinney at International
Katrina Tribunal

Secondly, the Green Party is not without its own issues. A widespread lack of recognition of racism’s importance in society, and within the Greens, has burnt out many people of color activists in the Greens and prevented developing the Greens into a multiracial electoral vehicle. Building support for McKinney – inside and outside the Greens – can open up possibilities for Black and people-of-color leadership inside the Greens.

However, we can’t be idealists as we evaluate these limitations. Commitment to building a socialist movement – or any of its component parts – does not wait for an ideal situation following the appropriate strategic discussion. And the left is involved in plenty of marginal issues! Shit, the organized labor movement is in the single-digits in Georgia and I hope no socialist would say “Let’s wait for a real workers’ movement to get involved with this” or accuse leftists in the ranks, officialdom, or staff of organized labor guilty of “just trying to make ourselves feel good.” I am totally on board with Jamala’s closing question:

“At what point does the US Left begin to look down the road 5-20 years and commit itself to a strategy that is focused on a major intervention with the objective being winning electoral office for a progressive bloc?”

For me, the seeds of that intervention come from getting involved with the best opportunity that we’ve had in decades, building it, and learning valuable lessons in the process. I see no other way to begin that journey.

Watch Cynthia shine in the Green Party debates!


7 responses to “Presidential horse race: ch-ch-ch-changes?”

  1. RyanH Avatar

    Actually, yes.

    But seriously, now I have to write an updated comment on your new article. If I could read your mind I would have just waited. If only!

  2. RyanH Avatar

    Hey everyone. I really liked this article when it came out (well, still do, and I like all of Isaac’s articles), but I thought it would be a good time to revisit this question.

    I think there have been a few significant changes in the last few months of which we should take account. Most significantly, Obama has won the DP nomination without any sort of shady Clinton coup. It appears that the still-growing upsurge of support behind Obama’s campaign will be united with at least some Clinton supporters. Leaving Obama out of the equation (whose election will unarguably present several needed reforms, for example the Employee Free Choice Act, which could open up significant organizing opportunities on a better basis for the next four years), we are left with 1) opening ourselves up to a greater possibility of a McCain win, signifying a victory for the ultra-right (which the ruling class may not even expect), and/or 2) exerting a lot of energy to build the Green Party in an election where we have the very least opportunity of gaining critical support (certainly less than 2000, 2004, and pre-2000). One more change…McCain and his surrogates have been utilizing the usual broad appeals to white supremacy, and will probably ratchet this up now that they know Clinton won’t do that job for them. And with changes, come more questions…

    How will sections of the rev. left (like Soli) deal with these inevitable increasing racist attacks on Obama while remaining entirely disengaged? How will that be prioritized?

    When do we engage the folks who are being mobilized (in a qualitatively small way, but not completely insignificant) by the Obama campaign? Do we wait to find them later or try to recruit the “hopers/changers” to movements while their still coming out of the woodwork?

    What about our comrades in other organizations (like FRSO/OSCL) who have moved to some “critical support” of the Obama campaign? Are there ways to work with them that are more important than the seemingly hopeless project of building the Green Party?

    And what about endorsing the SP/PSL/SWP/etc. propaganda campaign? (just kidding, please don’t answer that)

    There are more questions I have, but I should stop there. I should also say that I’m a former Green who thinks that the DP is the “graveyard of social movements” (in a certain way) and that Obama is a die-hard neoliberal who, in contradictory ways, does embody the sort of “post-racial” white supremacist politics we have to reject. But…we have to take full account of our enemy tactically, even whilst despising them strategically (damn you Brad and your Maoist blogs).


  3.  Avatar

    Isaac, your piece gets the ball rolling so well.

    We’re meeting next month as a branch to talk about such things.

    The important thing is not to get sucked into the debate about whether the Dems are better or not than the Republicans. The better questions have to do with what’s happening in the country, and what do the elections mean about them.

    Is there some sort of liberal correction coming?

    “The defense industry this year abandoned its decade-long commitment to the Republican Party, funneling the lion share of its contributions to Democratic presidential candidates, especially to Hillary Clinton who far out-paced all her competitors.”

    Also saw today that while the economy may have recovered poorly, that may not be true of everything economic.

    Will there be a hardening, deepening of the post 9-11 reaction, with immigration and Iran leading the charge?

  4. JohnM Avatar

    I happened upon two rallies yesterday at Columbus Circle. One was an Obama rally, probably a couple hundred folks or so, and the other, just the other side of the statue, a rally by a NYC grassroots org Community Voices Heard (CVH). The latter rally had a few dozen folks, low income people of color, chanting “our communities are under attack, what do we do, stand up fight back!”, and was held as part of the Global Day of Action called by the World Social Forum. Tombstone placards at the small but spirited CVH rally announced the “death of affordable housing”.

    Meanwhile, the Obama rally called on folks to do “everything” – wear buttons and shirts, make calls, drop everything else to sacrifice for the campaign – before Feb 5th to win NYC for Obama.

    I overheard a CVH staffer saying the Obama folks were angry at the CVH rally and were running around to the police there saying CVH didn’t have a permit and would have to move.

    This was blunt picture of the shallowness and failure of Democratic Party politics. Here’s a group of homeless and low-income residents crying out against the destruction of housing in NYC, and the Obama activists are telling them drop ‘their concerns’ or pipe down to not disturb ‘the real campaign’.

    Relatedly, I’m pretty depressed imagining what our fellow fighters around the world will think when they inquire as to what actions took place in the US on Jan 26, the WSF day of action, only to learn that most were too entranced with circusmaster Wolf Blitzer and the South Carolina primary to be otherwise bothered.

  5. Isaac Avatar

    Hey comrade, post it yourself… then next time you write something, I’ll promote it. Works out better for you, ’cause I got more (online) friends! Ha!

  6.  Avatar

    Not only did the idea that avowedly pro-war Democrats would get troops out of Iraq come up in 2006, it was a lot of people’s excuse for voting for John Kerry in 2004. Its not fun to watch that happening again in the Democratic primaries, but Cynthia is a compelling candidate and I’m excited about her campaign.

    You should post this article as a note on facebook, too.