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Would It Really be Any Different?

Imagine No Republicans

by ANDREW LEVINE

Biologists sometimes do thought experiments in which they reflect on the consequences of imaginary catastrophic events wiping out particular populations.  For a day or two, one could hope that a natural experiment of a similar type would soon transpire: that Hurricane Isaac would do in the Grand Old Party of wingnuts, whackjobs, semi-retired war criminals, neocon war mongers, and some of the most noxious capitalists on earth.

However nature soon proved itself, yet again, indifferent to urgent human needs.  But surely a “targeted” annihilation would not be too much to expect from a superannuated thunder god who is supposed to be good (or at least not malicious) and just.  Too bad that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Pat Robertson is not up to the task.

Just think, after all, what an omnipotent and omniscient Being could do; think of all the “creative destruction”!  With thunderbolts and tornadoes, He (or would it be She?) could out perform the best of Obama’s drones – striking all and only those who “deserve” it; no “due process” questions asked.

With zero “collateral damage” the White House and Pentagon would turn green with envy.  Or perhaps not; if it turns out, as seems to be the case, that, weasel words aside, they actually get off on collateral damage.

But we can still ask what if?  What if the party that keeps dragging our politics rightward, to such an extent that it is now off the spectrum of just a decade or two ago, disappeared from the face of the earth?

To be sure, a God with decent politics would need more than just Isaac for that inasmuch as the worst malefactors wouldn’t deign to show their faces at a mere Tampa infomercial.  But an omniscient God would know how to find them.

God would need to exercise divine wisdom too because not all Republicans are created equal.  In particular, Ron Paul and his followers pose a problem.  On the whole, they are bad news, but they come with a redeeming feature.

On economic matters, they’re no better than the rest; just a bit more lucid and consistent — though with Paul Ryan doing the thinking for the GOP, it’s not hard to lead the field in the lucidity and consistency departments.

But Paul was the only genuinely anti-war candidate running this year for the nomination of either of the two semi-established parties, and though his views on foreign policy have more to do with antiquated economic nostrums than principled opposition to the predations of empire, the effect is much the same.  He was also the only real defender of civil liberties.

It should be born in mind too that even if the divinity somehow got it all right, there wouldn’t just be Democrats left; not for long.  If a second major party didn’t exist, the oligarchy would have to invent one.  Otherwise, it would be impossible for them to maintain a (small-d) democratic façade.

No doubt, preparations for competitive elections would therefore resume the day after the GOP disappeared.  But, since we’re just imagining, lets suppose that, with Republicans gone, Democrats would no longer have a serious electoral rival.

This would surely be an improvement over the status quo.  Such progress as there has been in combatting racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of exclusion and oppression would be more secure; and the quality of political discourse would be much improved without the willful ignorance and flamboyant stupidity that Republicans have lately introduced into our public life.

Civil society might even recover some of the moral and intellectual common sense that we have been shedding since the Eisenhower days.

But would the extinction of the GOP put an end to the Reaganite (neo-liberal, anti-affirmative state) turn of recent decades?  Would it reverse the accelerated depredations of the Bush-Obama era – reestablishing privacy rights, for example, or restoring the rule of law to pre-9/11 levels?

I don’t think so.  Without Republicans leading the way, Democrats might not know exactly what to do.  But, in time, they would probably figure it out on their own, and they are more than capable of keeping everything on the wrong track.

Indeed, after almost four years of Barack Obama’s presidency, it is – or ought to be – beyond dispute that what has been at stake in recent elections has had more to do with style than substance.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it has been and how it still is.  This is not to say that it doesn’t matter who wins the White House or which party controls the House and the Senate; only that it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it could or should.

Why has the Obama administration been so — Republican?  There is one school of thought that puts the blame on the president’s personality.  This view has merit: even for a Democrat, Obama is unusually pusillanimous and conflict averse (at least with respect to domestic political forces), and unusually awed by billionaires.

Jane Mayer’s piece in the August 27 New Yorker, “Schmooze or Lose,” maintains that, to his detriment, Obama is averse to chatting up the super-rich.  Perhaps so.  That would speak well for his character — especially since the billionaire donors who are susceptible to being chatted up by him are less abhorrent by orders of magnitude than the Sheldon Adelson-Koch Brothers kind.  Evidently, though, a distaste for schmoozing with billionaires is consistent with being in awe of them.  To our detriment, that is just what Obama seems to be.

It is also sometimes said, by way of an explanation, that circumstances count for more than personality, and that now that ours has become a political culture where money counts for almost everything, the exigencies of corporate pandering made the Obama administration’s awfulness inevitable.

No doubt, this too accounts for some of what became of hope and change.  It isn’t just Congress that’s up for sale anymore; the White House is too.  Small wonder, therefore, that Obama has been campaigning from Day One, just as abjectly as any legislator in an insecure seat, and that he has picked up the pace in the past two years, now that five profoundly anti- (small-d) democratic Supreme Court Justices have decided that political corruption is constitutionally protected free speech.

I’d venture too that Obama’s – and the Democrats’ – ideological predilections have at least as much to do with their feckless governance as their personalities or the inevitable consequences of a campaign finance regime that encourages plutocrats to buy the outcomes they want.

Many of delegates and convention attendees whom we can imagine being swept into Tampa Bay are theocrats, intent on repealing the Enlightenment, even as they take full advantage of the technological advances it made possible.  Others, whether from greed or conviction, would just repeal the twentieth century by restoring Gilded Age economic doctrines and the Social Darwinist political morality that was its natural complement.

And so the GOP’s overlapping libertarian and theocratic wings are not as much at odds as may appear; they are of one mind in wanting to turn back moral and intellectual progress.  The difference is just how far back they want to go.  From the time of the French Revolution, when the modern notion of a Left and Right emerged, turning back progress has been the Right’s historical mission.

Democrats, on the other hand, have no mission; the problem with them is not that they are reactionary or, like most Republicans, mindless, but that they are aimless and cooperative to a fault.  It therefore hardly matters why, in this historical moment, they too would repeal progress, and neither does it matter that most of them are only reluctantly acting the way Republicans would, if Republicans had the wits they were born with.

Were it not for the fact that Republicans decided four years ago that their highest priority would be to make the Obama administration fail, Democrats, ever intent on cooperating with them, might have offered up even less resistance to GOP policies than they have.

Ironically, Republican obduracy has been the one thing keeping Democrats on a center-right – and therefore not entirely reactionary — track.  Had they been even just a tad more reasonable, Democrats would by now be nothing more than kinder, gentler and, of course, saner versions of their ostensible ideological rivals.

And so, the Democrats’ present sorry state was in a sense inevitable.  If a party aims for the center and is then dragged rightward by its opponent’s obstinacy and its own “bipartisanship,” it is bound to end up more or less where the Democrats now are.

But, of course, there was no need to aim for the center and even less to do what Robert Frost said liberals generally do – not take their own side in an argument.  For these strategic blunders, culpability lies with the Democratic Party itself.

Real hope and change would have entailed a determination to use state power in just the opposite way from how it has been used in recent decades; it would have required countering, not enabling, neo-liberal globalization and its concomitant, the enrichment of those we now call the one-percent and the immiseration of everyone else.

It would have meant adopting state policies that serve human needs and interests, and that stave off, not encourage, ecological catastrophes.  It would mean working to create a world where capital’s relentless quest for ever-greater profits is kept in bounds, even if it is impossible, now and in the foreseeable future, to move beyond the horizons of capitalism itself.

To be sure, in all capitalist societies, the exigencies of capitalist development constrain what is politically feasible.   But the extent and nature of those constraints is variable, and the main determining factor, especially in “developed” countries, is in almost all cases political.   In short, though the economic structure constrains what is politically feasible, the political situation, the balance of political forces, determines how constraining those constraints are.

This is why I think that Obama’s Original Sin was not, as seemed at the time, “looking forward” – that is, not settling accounts with the crimes of the Bush-Cheney era by bringing to justice those who are plainly chargeable with war crimes, crimes against the peace, and crimes against humanity.  Neither was it engineering what amounted to a Clintonite Restoration by reempowering old Clinton hands, including even Hillary herself.  Obama’s Original Sin was squandering a rare historical opportunity for hope and change.

Obama took office at a time when disgust with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was at its peak, and when the incompetence of Bush-Cheney governance was widely acknowledged, notwithstanding the best efforts of Fox News, talk radio and, most insidious of all, the so-called quality press.  More important still, it was a time when it was becoming clear to all but the willfully blind that neo-liberal economic policies had wreaked havoc upon capitalism’s financial system, taking much of the real economy of the United States and the rest of the world down with it.

In the spring of 2009, the capitalist order, though hardly in jeopardy, was unusually unstable and therefore susceptible to being changed.  It was because so many people understood this intuitively that Obama’s hope and change talk wasn’t as easily dismissed as similar blather generally is in political campaigns.

In other words, Obama really could have been a hope and change president.  But he squandered the opportunity either because he was not up to the task or else, as I suspect, because his real goal was to derail hope and change, the better to advance neo-liberal designs.

When all the bad arguments and self-justifications are swept aside, that comes down to taking a side in the class struggle, the side of the one percent.  Obama was not alone in this; he had, and still has, almost the entire lesser evil party behind him.

And so the lesson of the thought experiment I suggested is this: that were Republicans suddenly to disappear, leaving only Democrats in their stead, our politics would remain much as it now is.  The gain would be aesthetic and perhaps even moral, but politically the difference would be nil.

Democrats are at least as responsible for this miserable state of affairs as Republicans are.  Because, for the most part, they know better, as Obama surely does, they are, if anything, even more reprehensible.

For real hope and change, therefore, it is at least as important to change Democrats as to defeat Republicans.  Or, since the Democratic Party is by now probably beyond redemption, best of all would be to replace the party of Clinton and Obama by a party that really does represent the interests of the oligarchy’s victims, and not the oligarchs themselves.

I can’t see any clear path from here to there, but it can’t hurt, come November 6, to vote for Jill Stein, the candidate of the Greens.

Now that it seems unlikely that Mitt Romney will Etch A Sketch his way back to his governor of Massachusetts persona, we can expect that the Lesser Evil case for Obama will become harder to resist.

We can therefore expect that, if the Stein campaign gains traction, the way the Nader campaign did twelve years ago, we’ll soon be hearing that “a vote for Stein is a vote for Romney.”

Remember, though, that this is a plausible contention only in the dozen or so “battleground states” where the electoral votes, the only votes that count in our not very democratic presidential elections, are already effectively cast.  For everyone else, a vote for Stein absolutely, positively can’t hurt.

All voters, though, should bear in mind that lesser evilism got us to where we now are – to the point where, even if a decent and capable God would do the right thing to the miscreants assembled in Tampa and to the Republican luminaries and financiers hunkered down elsewhere, our politics would be only superficially better for ninety-nine percent of us.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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