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Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Do Elections Make Any Difference?

by ANDREW LEVINE

In the run up to the Presidential election of 1960, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Harvard historian and Kennedy courtier, published a book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?  Schlesinger had to struggle to find reasons to claim that it was important that Kennedy win.

It came down mainly to noblesse oblige.  Lucky for him that JFK’s opponents had started out as poor boys.  He’d have had to delve deep into his bag of tricks if Averell Harriman, not Hubert Humphrey, had run against his aspiring Prince in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries; or if Nelson Rockefeller, not Richard Nixon, had been the Republican nominee.

Schlesinger’s argument was a stretch, but the question he asked needed answering.  In mid-century America, Democrats and Republicans were very much alike, and everyone knew it.  So were Kennedy and Nixon.

Kennedy, of course, had style.  Everyone now knows about his many ailments, including Addison’s Disease, his addiction to painkillers and his compulsive philandering.  However, at the time, he seemed youthful, athletic and vigorous.

He was, by all accounts, a family man of unimpeachable loyalty, not just to the Kennedy clan and to his daughter (Jackie was pregnant with John John when Schlesinger’s book appeared), but to Jackie as well.  She was, after all, every fellow’s dream.  In less than a decade’s time, she would become the ultimate trophy bride.

Jack was socially connected and self-assured; he had impeccable taste.  He was witty, accomplished, handsome, sexy and rich; a Harvard man out of central casting.

But one with immigrant roots and, like all Kennedys, the common touch.  Few resented him; many aspired to be him.

Meanwhile, the conspicuously asexual Nixon seemed uncomfortable in his body, common and gruff.  He sported a five o’clock shadow.  The contrast was striking.

When it came to substantive political differences however, it took a keen eye to discern any at all.  To get liberals on board, the campaign therefore put Schlesinger to work, conjuring up affinities between JFK and his father’s sometime nemesis, Franklin Roosevelt.

Schlesinger wisely chose not to ask – Democrats or Republicans, Does It Make Any Difference?  Had that been his question, his ingenuity would probably not have been up to the task of finding reasons for the conclusion he wanted to draw.

 * * *

There were true liberals in Democratic ranks in 1960 and, for the most part, Democrats were more liberal than Republicans.  But then there was the solid (segregationist) South, dragging the party to the right.

Southern Democrats supported the New Deal as long as it didn’t put white supremacy in jeopardy.  Northern liberals, needing their votes and being loathe to take on institutional racism in any case, happily went along.

Without the South, the New Deal would not have been possible.  But the need to keep the South on board limited its scope and therefore ultimately its reforming zeal.   Ira Katznelson tells the story in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013).

By 1960, the civil rights movement was underway; accommodations with Southern racists were therefore becoming harder than they had been to maintain.  But, for Democrats trying to elect a President, it was still necessary to keep the South on the Democratic side.  That imperative continued to force liberals to moderate their views.

The result was that, even outside the South, the two parties stood pretty much at the same place on the political spectrum.

Race, not religion, was the main concern of the forces pulling the Democrats to the right.   Evangelical Christians had yet to forge a distinctive political identity, and the Catholic Church was still more interested in integrating its parishioners into American life than promoting its patriarchal, socially retrograde “moral” teachings.

In 1960, with Kennedy running for President, the Church was especially disinclined to assert its power in ways that might stir up anti-Catholic animosity.  They remembered what happened to Al Smith in 1928, the first time a Catholic ran for the office.

Evangelicals who lived in the South were Democrats and so were Catholics in immigrant communities in the Northeast and the upper Midwest.  Most of the former would become Republicans once blacks got the vote, and many of the latter would become Reagan Democrats.  At the time, though, these constituencies still voted in accord with their economic interests, and there were many New Dealers within them.

However, it is plain in retrospect that the seeds of conflict between economic and social liberals were already in place.  That conflict would erupt full-blown in the Reagan years; it has blighted our politics ever since.

It is hard to believe nowadays but, on social issues, Republicans in 1960 were no worse than Democrats.  With the South already shaky and with their Catholic working class base, Democrats knew they had to watch their step.   Republican liberals and “moderates” felt less constrained.

Their base, in those days, was generally more enlightened and better educated than their rival’s.  Some of their constituents, women especially, were favorably disposed towards women’s equality, birth control, and even abortion rights.  On civil rights, Republicans were generally decent too, though they were seldom ardent; it was not in their nature.

* * *

That was before the South switched sides, before theocrats broke free from their apolitical stupor, before political entrepreneurs conjured up the culture wars that made “values voters” of important segments of the New Deal base, and before the neoliberal turn in American and world politics dragged the political center everywhere to the right.

In the United States, the transformation began in the waning years of the Carter administration, but it was under Ronald Reagan that the course of things to come took shape.  Since then, America has had only Reaganite presidents.  The worst of them have been Democrats – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Republicans were true believers, but they are helpless when the Democratic base rises up in opposition; Democrats can get the job done.

Nowadays, social liberals are all Democrats; in the Republican Party, the species has gone extinct.  However, on the traditional axes of political contestation, both parties have moved far to the right, and there is hardly a sliver of light between them.

They are both dedicated to free market theology; they both worship at the altar of private property.  In a word, they are on the same side in the class struggle.

The difference is mainly that Democrats still think, as FDR did, that a moderately intrusive government is necessary for saving capitalism from the capitalists. To guard against the deleterious consequences of untrammeled greed, Democrats would regulate their paymasters’ machinations.

This is obviously necessary; therefore Republicans regulate too – albeit more grudgingly.  To the extent that they can get away with it, they are more inclined than Democrats to let their patrons have their way.  This difference can sometimes matter, but it is more rhetorical than real.

That the two parties were on the same page was even clearer in the days when Schlesinger was drumming up support for his Prince.  Then, more than now, it was conceded by all that a substantial degree of regulation was a good thing – not just for the general population, but for (most) capitalists too.   FDR had triumphed over Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

However views that appeal to economic elites seldom disappear, no matter how thoroughly they are repudiated; at most, they live on underground until conditions are right for them to burst forth again.  Our Reaganite Presidents and our bought and paid for legislators have made the conditions right.  Accordingly, in this on-going Bush-Obama era, the repressed has returned with a vengeance.

Driven by ideology or greed or both, capitalism’s class warriors made useful idiots of the GOP’s lunatic fringe.  It worked for a while, but the monster they concocted may by now be beyond their control.

The “malefactors of great wealth,” as their kind was known a century ago, did get their man, Romney, nominated in 2012.  But by then the Republican Party was so divided, and Romney himself was so compromised, that that hapless poltroon never really had a chance.

It remains to be seen whether, in the coming electoral cycle and then in 2016, the GOP establishment can still keep their party in line.  Don’t bet on it; Tea Partiers are an obstinate lot – stubborn, dumb and determined.

One would think that, in the circumstances, enlightened capitalists would be falling over themselves jumping onto the Democratic bandwagon.  Many of them are.  As they have been since the Bill Clinton days, Democrats are lusting after their money and their support.  But old ways die hard; not all the GOP’s plutocrats are ready yet to desert their sinking ship.

And they might have a point; their favorite political instrument could somehow still pull through.    As long as Obama remains craven, and as long as his administration lumbers on ineptly, anything could happen.  It would not be the first time that Democrats blow a sure thing.

Does it make any difference?   On cultural issues, it surely does.  On the economic and social matters more central to political life, it does as well – a little, and at the margins.

But even in those cases where the differences are not trivial, they are unfailingly equivocal.  The Affordable Care Act  is exhibit number one.  It derived from a Republican plan developed early in the nineties at the Heritage Foundation to counter the specter of Hillarycare.  As recently as 2006, an ancestor version was signed into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney himself.  It was only when Obama took this Republican plan up that Republican support for it disappeared.

The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is pathetic, but it is better than nothing, which is all the Republicans are offering now.  This is an important difference.

If Obamacare doesn’t founder before it gets going, it will probably result in many currently uninsured persons finally gaining health insurance protection.  But it will also further entrench the power of private insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the for-profit health care industry, and other profiteers.

It will therefore make real reform more difficult, while empowering and enriching the already rich and powerful forces standing in its way.

Still, it is fair to say that the good it will do outweighs the bad, and that the difference is as important as anything Schlesinger was able to come up with for supporting Kennedy over Nixon.

So, yes, it makes a difference, a small one.  Had the GOP not fallen headlong into the dark side, the difference would be smaller still.

But the dark side is where the Republican Party nowadays is; and it may not even stay there for long.  Many Republicans nowadays are no longer even living in this world.  Therefore the leaders of the GOP’s Establishment have their work cut out for them.

They must contend, first, with the Tea Party.  Tea Party obstinacy is admirable and the pro-capitalist “populism” Tea Partiers promote is doubtless welcome in the greedier and more ideologically driven sectors of the ruling class.  But surely even the Koch brothers must be bothered by the cultural contradictions separating grandees like themselves from their useful idiots, and they can hardly be confident of their continuing loyalty.  The moral and intellectual level of Tea Partiers is stupefying, and they are out of control.

Then there are the “adults” like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, still salivating, as they were a decade ago, over the prospect of “regime change” in the Middle East and wherever else they think the empire needs a boost.  They are always on the ready to go to war.

The banksters and corporate moguls for whom the GOP exists may not be the brightest bulbs on the tree, but after more than a decade of Bush-Obama wars, some of them surely understand that the empire is far too overextended to continue along those lines.  Beach Boy wannabe John McCain may still be singing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” but one-per-centers worth their weight in stock options and derivatives know better.

For the sake of those stock options and derivatives, they remain eager to bankroll Republican governors and state legislators hell bent on undoing organized labor; and they are surely as inclined as the most mean-spirited Tea Partiers to stick it to the poor any way they can.

However that is no way to regain control of the Senate and the White House.  They therefore have no choice but to etch-a-sketch their way back to the GOP of old, much as Romney wanted to do in 2012.

He was unable to pull it off.  If the point of no return had already been reached then, the situation the GOP establishment faces now is even more dire.

And as long as the GOP remains in such a state, there is indeed a difference between Democrats and Republicans.  It is not a political difference strictly speaking, but, so to speak, a stylistic one.  Democrats fall in the normal range; Republicans exude baseness, servility, malevolence and outright imbecility,

However when Schlesinger asked whether the choice between Kennedy and Nixon made any difference, he wasn’t asking about differences per se; not even differences that are consequential for peoples’ lives.  He was concerned with differences that have consequences for what people ought to do.

His book, after all, was political propaganda.  The aim was to motivate voters to elect Kennedy over Nixon.

From that purview, the purely logical point that anyone wanting outcomes to be as good as can be should always opt for the better – or less bad – choice doesn’t automatically apply.

For one thing, the case for lesser evilism is shortsighted; it fails to take the long-run consequences of going for the lesser evil into account.  Thanks to their myopia, lesser evilists helped get us to our present sorry state; they have much to answer for.

But even if we look only to the choices at hand, there are often thresholds that must be exceeded before lesser evil considerations become germane.

Everything else being equal, an environmental policy that has, say, a seventy-five percent chance of leading, in time, to a catastrophic outcome is better – by a significant degree – than one with a ninety-five percent chance of leading to a similar result.

Similarly, it is better to wager your life savings on a bet that has a one in a hundred thousand chance of paying off than one where the chances are one in a million.  But unless you have to choose one or the other, it doesn’t follow that you ought to opt for the less risky policy or the less bad bet.

It would be far better to do nothing at all, or to do something altogether different.

One can contrive examples where it is not the case, but in the real world there almost always are alternatives to extremely bad lesser evil choices.

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t seem that way.  This has long been a problem Americans face at election time.

A vote for an Obama Democrat is a vote for playing fast and loose with Constitutional protections and for putting basic rights and liberties, especially privacy rights, in jeopardy.  It is a vote for perpetual war, and for continuing and even exacerbating the social, economic and environmental afflictions brought on by the neoliberal turn.

Republicans are worse.  But so long as ways of pursuing a new politics are not foreclosed, that fact is hardly dispositive – except perhaps in rare instances when all other options are exhausted.

While Obama’s drones fly, while his assassins kill, while his “intelligence” agencies monitor everything we do – and while the Lesser Evil party supports all this virtually without dissent — it matters more that the Democratic Party is on the wrong side of an appropriate moral threshold than that the Republicans are worse still.

*     *    *

At the risk of seeming facetious, I would venture nevertheless that when it comes down to Election Day, and when it is clear that either an Obama Democrat or a Tea Party Republican is going to win, one might as well pick the less noxious alternative.  The difference, in Schlesinger’s sense, is not so much political or moral as aesthetic or psychological.  It comes down to the fact that Democrats are less appalling.

Whatever Schlesinger might have thought, it was the same with Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy bested Nixon on style, not substance.  Much has changed since 1960.  But when it comes to addressing an up-dated version of Schlesinger’s question, it is a case, as the French say, of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose  – the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Where, then, does this leave us, the counterparts of the people Schlesinger tried to win over to the Kennedy side?

The obvious answer is that the wisest course for anyone who is serious about making the world better is to work outside the duopoly party system.  Hard as it may be to stay aloof, electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans are distractions at best.

Therefore turn off Rachel Maddow; don’t let her steer you into the Democratic fold by scaring you over the latest Republican nonsense.  Work for basic change instead.

True enough.  But working for basic change is easier said than done.

The problem is that we have no good way to wage organized, counter-systemic political struggles outside the electoral arena.  A further problem is that basically pointless elections force themselves upon us every two and four years with an almost irresistible force.

The Occupy movement that erupted spontaneously in the fall of 2011 was the most important expression of mass protest and indignation to occur in the United States in many years.  Now it is a distant memory.

There were many reasons why – among others, that local governments have become adept at controlling and then suppressing dissent, especially when the White House leads, as Obama likes to say, “from behind.”   Even so, the movement might have survived.  But once the 2012 primary season got underway, the chances for a revival became nil.  Too much energy got sucked up into the electoral circus.

There is much to be said for the old saw that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  But even that is problematic because the Democratic Party, after Clinton and Obama, is now probably beyond redemption; and because the prospects for third party politics are and long have been dreadful.

The Greens and others try.  But, outside a few local jurisdictions, they have little chance of being heard by a wide audience, much less of becoming a force to be reckoned with.

In America, paradoxically, elections depoliticize; they work against (small-d) democracy.  However there is no getting away from them; they draw everybody in.

And so Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has lately become the slender reed upon whom progressives now cast their hopes.

Her appeal is obvious: she is smart and Wall Street hates her.  Smart can be overrated, of course; Barack Obama is smart, and Herbert Hoover was probably the smartest American president in the past hundred years.  However Wall Street’s hatred is not to be despised.

I would be more enthusiastic, however, if she talked about changing the system, not restoring it to more or less what it had been before the Reaganites, Bill Clinton especially, got hold of it.  But what was comfortably conservative back when Schlesinger was shilling for Kennedy is too radical even to be mentioned nowadays.  One can hardly blame Warren for that.

Eliot Spitzer was promising too for much the same reasons.  Tragically, though, what JFK got away with did him in, notwithstanding the fact, now universally acknowledged, that Kennedy was more flagrant by orders of magnitude.

Unlike Spitzer – and John Edwards, who ran in the 2008 Democratic primaries to Obama’s and Clinton’s left – Warren seems anything but reckless.  If she has the least inclination to walk on the wild side, she has kept it well hidden.

This is all to the good.  But she is someone of whom we know little apart from her regulatory zeal.  Will she, Hillary-style, join the War Party when the opportunity arises?  Will she, like Hillary, embrace the humanitarian interveners?

So far, her express views on the Middle East – Iran, especially – have been less than encouraging; and, at this stage of remove from a Presidential run, Obama seemed far less likely than she now does to continue to fund the blank check the U.S. gives to the Israeli government to maintain the oppression of the Palestinian people.

She has said that she has no intention to run, but then Obama said that too at a similar point in his Senate career.  And she is the brightest star out there at present; indeed the only bright star around.  Unless she backslides on Wall Street, her appeal to Democratic voters in the 2016 primaries is sure to be substantial.

Were she to run, win the nomination, and then become President would her supporters then be disappointed — again?

Very likely.  In our globalized, neoliberal order, markets rule.  It hardly matters what politicians say, think or even try to do.

This is why in varying degrees there is a “democracy deficit” everywhere: whomever the people elect, they end up with whatever “the markets” demand.  Even the United States, the center of the empire, is not immune.

So it was that the people elected an Obama whom they thought stood for “change” and “hope,” and ended up with an Obama few can wait to see the back of.  Democratic Party cheerleaders blame this on Republicans; more astute observers note that the exigencies of global capitalism also played a role.

But those who look with unbiased eyes know that Obama himself has been, by character and conviction, on Wall Street’s side from Day One.  It goes without saying that, in this respect and many others as well, Hillary Clinton is even worse.  On the other hand,  Elizabeth Warren, to her everlasting credit, has earned Wall Street’s enmity.

But that is no guarantee that, even if she were to remain true to her words, she would be able to resist the predatory forces of monopoly capitalism in our globalized world order.  Democracy deficits are not easily defied.

At this point, though, there is no reason, apart from general skepticism, to be wary of the junior Senator from Massachusetts; there is hardly any evidence at all.

Still, I think the most responsible course – the one I would follow, if the election were held today – would be to honor the moral and political threshold that the Democratic Party in the Age of Obama generally fails to meet.  The prospect of a Warren presidency is appealing, at least for the time being, and the chance to cast a meaningful vote against Hillary Clinton would be hard to resist; the very thought of that dreadful family coming back into our lives is painful to contemplate.

But I would probably forbear and instead use the opportunity to make an unquestionably sound point by casting a vote for someone who has done as much as anyone to expose what is rotten here in the Land of the (formerly) Free, the arch-nemesis of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and all the many other scoundrels of the Bush-Obama era; I would write in the name of Edward Snowden.

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).