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Presidential elections, and electoral politics more generally, are often a source for mass confusion. The confusion is based on what Freud termed “the overvaluation of the object.” He was describing the overvaluation of the object of desire, leading to various fetishes that displaced objects of longing in places sometimes deemed abnormal. One can make a fetish of any candidate or the opportunistic character of most politicians and the electoral process. One might celebrate the sense of the possible in Obama, the union backed populism of Edwards, or even Clinton’s parries with the health insurance industry. There are virtues to these candidates and weaknesses (if not fatal flaws) when it comes to their ability-or that of the larger electoral system-to address the central problems facing us. Or one could call elections “traps for fools” as Jean-Paul Sartre once did. All these things are more or less relevant, but slightly beside the point.
What’s more relevant is the structural realignment of the Democratic Party. Stanley Aronowitz, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, described the problem in an essay on “The Decline of American Liberalism” (published in his book Dead Artists, Live Theories and Other Cultural Problems, New York, Routledge, 1992). Aronowitz wrote that “the Democratic Party has less in common with its New Deal forebears than ever before, and its ‘progressive wing’ has never been smaller. Still, the left realignment forces persist, waiting for the inevitable economic crisis to drive the labor movement and the Democratic Party further to the left orfor the pendulum of history to resolve the anomalies in their theory and analysis. But the economic crisis has come and things are getting worse politically. The pendulum is at a standstill.” Aronowitz challenged his readers by writing “there is no independent left in the US worthy of the name.” Such a left “would have as its main tasks to define and disseminate the ideas of democracy among political activists and the general population.”
This brings us to the observations of Jerry Brown back in 1992 who, when running against the other Clinton, remarked that “the way he wins the election will shape what happens once he gets in office,” or something to that effect. Brown, as the embodiment of the fragments of environmental, New Age and alternative politics, was simply deemed a “flake.” His counterpart, Bill Clinton, was recognized as the ever-present “triangulator” and called “slick,” unable to hold a firm position. Brown, like Ralph Nader and John Edwards today, singled out the impact of elite financial interests in shaping the electoral process. How someone gets elected will shape to whom they are accountable to later on. This idea was codified by Thomas Fergusson, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, and author of Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. In describing the theory, G. William Domhoffæin some ways the intellectual heir to C. Wright Millsæexplained that theories claiming that voters control political parties in the United States suffer from various weaknesses. The problem, Domhoff wrote, is that “these theories underestimate the costs encountered by American voters in trying to exert control, which include the time and energy spent in obtaining information, finding allies, and choosing candidates, as well as the large amount of money needed for advertising, hiring consultants, and traveling.” American politics in the last century often became reduced to “battles between rival ‘investor blocks’ rooted in economic sectors that need slightly different policies on such issues as tariffs, subsidies, military spending, and government support for labor unions.”
Domhoff raises many questions about this theory’s merits, but at the very least one can retain the basic point that how a candidate gets elected will determine how they perform once in office. Moreover, the larger field of power surrounding a candidateædefined by concentrations of economic, media, political and military capitalæwill potentially limit what a candidate does once in office or the barriers they face. The coalition a candidate puts together will influence what leverage the candidate has over these interests. Obama has reached out to young and old, women and men, and various social groups in a convincing fashion. His positive vision has mobilized thousands in a way that may yet make inroads against elites.
We all know, however, that coalitions can fall apart once more critical questions are raised, after the establishment media starts confusion campaigns, or in response to propaganda efforts by less-enlightened corporations. One potential outcome is what I call “structured superficiality.” It’s not just that things are kept vague, with more difficult questions to be asked later. Noam Chomsky has described how the media makes it very difficult to take sophisticated or principled positions because they support the status quo discourse. Edwards has spoken more bluntly about some of the contradictions facing an elected president, but a central question is whether any presidential campaign today is truly an authentic or autonomous movement “from below” or simply a hybrid between populist idealism and elite hegemony from above.
Aronowitz’s challenge and the questions about vested corporate interests can make one feel powerless or yearning for some kind of “change,” the favored soundbite of our era. Where then is a democratic change or opening possible? One clue could be seen in Iowa. The Iowa campaign highlighted the power of the youth voter, as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair note in a recent column. An earlier article by Elizabeth Holmes on October 3rd of last year in The Wall Street Journal described the efforts of Atul Nakhasi, a 19-year-old college junior who is president of the University of Iowa Democrats. Nakhasi organized various forums profiling the candidates. He came to know all the organizers of the campaigns and received “a hand-written thank-you from Bill Clinton and a private lunch with Sen. Joe Biden.” Nakhasi “cleverly plotted to turn his once-moribund organization into a sought-after player in the Iowa caucuses, where the first delegates in the 2008 presidential campaign will be chosen.” Nakhasi was to be “on the stage when Barack Obama” spoke to his campus. The evenness of the race perhaps explains “how peripheral players around the country are seizing on the sprawling race for the White House to advance their causes.” An Iowa entrance poll showed that 17 percent of total voters were aged 17 to 24, with Obama carrying 57 percent of these voters. Thousands were from out of state. Organizing and a political innovation made a difference.
The Nakhasi effort and Iowa youth vote are indicative of an accountability structure that could still be organized by the Left if it overcame the twin confusions of electoral fetishism and abstinence. Sitting on the sidelines during the incubation stage of executive power-wielders makes little sense. Blindly or soberly embracing candidates already captive to corporate or other elite interests does not an accountability system make. Inevitably, if established interests are to be tackled, third parties or party fracturing will be inevitable outcomes or necessities. That seems a clear lesson from history.
One could support a third-party effort, but doing so before autonomous media, political and economic power have been organized contains obvious risks. The question remains as to how to build an accountability structure that gives us elections that mean more than selecting our favorite manager for the military-industrial complex. Nakhasi’s story clearly shows how one could create the form of such an accountability system, and what unions, peace and environmental activists could do. One can be “on the stage” and not on the sidelines.
Jump ahead to the October 5th debate in New Hampshire, where one thing was evident. The Fourth Estate is insufficient for playing the role of a needed accountability structure. There were no expert interrogators who could point out the obvious links between an Iraq waræwhich some estimates now claim can cost $3.5 trillionæand the money we need for health care, alternative energy investments, and modernizing the industrial base against outsourcing threats. That very taboo subject and set of associations could have been the subject of a mass citizen mobilization, which partly took the form of the Nakhasi initiative and multiplied it on a grand scale throughout the key primary states. It could have been financed by the very monies diverted into symbolic politics outside the White House and mega rallies fueled by bus trips, car commutes and petitioning established government power.
Lessons from the Past: Fredrick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson and
Fortunately, we have a guidebook for how to design such a democratic accountability campaign. The pages of this book come from Fredrick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Let’s start with Douglass and the larger Abolitionist movement. Douglass was one of the Abolitionist movement’s most important heroes and leaders. Rather than simply petition the media, Douglass published several newspapers. His ability to tap media power was no doubt promoted by his various speaking campaigns and eloquence. This likely gave him access to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Rather than design small-scale poverty programs, Douglass went further, becoming President of the Freedman’s Savings Bank in the Reconstruction era. Colleges like Oberlin and Antioch were central to building the movement. Douglass understood the logic of accountability, most famously saying: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” Lesson: accountability depends on networks linking social movements to banks, universities and newspapers.
Thomas Jefferson envisioned the creation of a permanent structure centered on localized “ward Republics” that would unite grassroots citizens in decentralized collectives. Aronowitz, and earlier Hannah Arendt in her book On Revolution, popularized his views. These collectives would provide a means for making centralized national politicians accountable to popular will. This idea was conveyed in a February 2, 1816 letter to Joseph C. Cabell as published in Richard K. Matthews’s The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson:
Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.
As Matthews explains, the ward republic would not only provide a system to check “tyrants at home,” but also continue the spirit of the American Revolution, serve as a citizen education forum, and create a space (like later co-operatives or works councils) for popular education.
Jefferson described the need for “ready reserves” that would function as the political equivalent of a voluntary fire department, a kind of ever-present structure to put pressure on leaders. All citizens should remain ever ready to hold elected leaders accountable. This lesson about the necessity for grassroots campaigns to promote accountability has been taken to heart by right-wing groups throughout the United States. They have used the new media to create a system of accountability, but rather than advancing a general public good, they promote the narrow interests of capital and moral fundamentalism. For example, Pat Buchanan turned his presidential campaign into an institution to project his politics after and between elections.
A type of ready reserves was evident in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign and grassroots movement in the Democratic primaries. His strong second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary some 40 years ago helped force Lyndon Johnson to end his quest for a second term in the White House. The McCarthy campaign became sidetracked by Robert F. Kennedy’s decision to enter the race, and with his assassination, the ascendancy of Hubert F. Humphrey. Yet the McCarthy campaign illustrates a central lesson of where and how to exploit accountability structures.
Many of the McCarthy campaign’s lessons are revealed in an excellent documentary by Emil D’Antonio called 1968: America is Hard to See. In the film we learn how activists mobilizing from below could organize a candidacy rather than be organized by it. We see how New Hampshire, a relatively small state adjacent to dozens of colleges and universities throughout New England and beyond, was a prime site for organizing by a relatively dedicated group of individuals. The McCarthy campaign attracted hundreds of students who canvassed and mobilized throughout the state. A key player in helping spark the campaign was the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was joined by various student organizers. Critical intellectuals and students could and did make a difference. The ability to hold President Johnson accountable for his disastrous extension of the Vietnam War was made possible by picking a place where such a group could have leverage-where access to national state power was incubated, where the media spotlight shone, where organizers going door to door could canvass and cover the political terrain, and where those contesting for power were actually dependent on the power of citizen voters. Contrast this situation with the symbolic politics of White House demonstrations against already elected presidents that take place on a single day, and you immediately recognize the opportunity costs of the status quo politics of peace.
Connect the Dots: Lessons from George McGovern
Some may ask, “accountability for what” and “to what”? One answer is a larger vision that connects the dots as I noted in a previous Counterpunch article. We need more than small-scale, defensive “pragmatic” lowest common denominator politics. In addition to a radical, popularly based form, we also need a comprehensive intellectual content. The most important way to “connect the dots” is to respond to the crises attached to the economy, the environment and militarism. We don’t have to wait for crises to unfold, but we do need to design and build a permanent democracy machinery to exploit them inside and outside established party structures. If we don’t the right will and they have.
On August 2, 1963, Senator George McGovern gave a speech to the U.S. Senate called, “New Perspectives on American Security.” This speech was given 10 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It represents a kind of blueprint for an alternative politics that connects the dots. In the speech McGovern warned about the ever-present dangers of nuclear war:
“A single warhead from the American or Russian stockpile, if exploded over a great city, would instantly transform it into a raging fireball three miles in diameter with a direct heat and blast capable of burning human flesh and collapsing buildings 25 miles from its center. Above a smoking crater a mile wide and several blocks deep, a gigantic, poisonous radioactive cloud would rise 20 or 35 miles to rain down tortuous death on millions of human beings not fortunate enough to be incinerated quickly in the initial firestorm.”
McGovern continued with alternative proposals: “I think we need to take another careful look at our enormous arms budget, asking ourselves: What part of this budget represents additions to an already surplus overkill capacity? What alternative uses can be made of surplus military funds for strengthening the economic and political foundations of our society.” Arms cuts should be accompanied by conversion planning, a capability that “must be developed at all establishments-manufacturing, research, and others-engaged in fulfilling contracts or otherwise working for the Department of Defense of or the Atomic Energy Commission” [the predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission].
Those worried about today’s assault on the dollar should note McGovern’s warning back then: “the strain on our gold reserves as a result of heavy military commitments abroad and excessive arms spending at home is a threat to our international position.” Reminding his listeners of Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex, McGovern noted, “Americans have always feared that any trend toward militarism was a threat to the quality of our democracy.”
McGovern, who later ran for President in 1972, was not afraid to link military spending levels to an opportunity cost taking the form of a weakened welfare state. He continued, “Our civil rights problems require for their solution a major expansion of employment opportunity. The economically depressed regions of the country require fresh capital and technical talent.” The country had “an urgent need for more classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and capable teachers.” There were “millions of citizens, particularly our older people, who need more adequate hospital and nursing home care.” There were “rivers and streams to be saved from pollution and waste-a task calling for considerable engineering and technical manpower.” It was not just a matter of shifting budgets, but also economic reconstruction: “some of our present defense installations might in the future be converted into vocational schools, community colleges, or heath centers.”
McGovern’s speech and thinking was influenced in part by the writings and advice of his colleague, Columbia University Professor Seymour Melman, who worked with McGovern. Together with labor, peace, civil rights and environmental leaders, they helped convene a mass town meeting on the peace dividend in 1990. This meeting also gave a voice to third-party Congressional candidate Bernie Sanders, a major champion for a third party, as well as Senator Claiborne Pell, then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In this case, accountability structures and third parties were not at odds. The key question is how an accountability system is designed.
Various commentators have trivialized McGovern and his trajectory. The right-wing, centrists and media pundits have spent the past 30 or so years demonizing McGovern as a loser, an “excessive” liberal and “has-been.” In fact, Bill Clinton viewed his positioning as a centrist as a means of overcoming what has been viewed as the folly of McGovern’s electoral trouncing by Richard Nixon. Yet, McGovern got more than 29,000,000 votes. After President Nixon resigned in disgrace, the proportion of those who claimed or believed they voted for McGovern shot up considerably. About a year ago, McGovern got a warm reception at the National Press Club in a speech that outlined an orderly exit path from the latest tragedy of American militarist excess-the war in Iraq .
Beyond Crackpot Realism
We need to move beyond what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism,” a false belief in the workable character of force in military affairs. Our wars have recruited far more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. Crackpot realism also extends to a kind of naïve belief in watered-down politics or buying into established forms of protest. The emphasis on so-called “pragmatic” measures, like those inspired by community organizer Saul Alinksy, take existing power structures for granted. They don’t redesign new structures to project power. This represents several steps back from the Abolitionist movement or even the strategies of the Black Muslims (leaving aside the content of their politics).
Activists, trade unions, peace groups or others committed to various candidates or parties may believe that investing in accountability structures rather than candidates is a waste of time and resources. The problem with such political short-termism is that the big promises and commitments of candidates often fade away once they are elected. Candidates find they lack the base they need or were simply disingenuous in their earlier pledges. Or, even if we hope the best from candidates, they will often take for granted those constituencies most dependent upon them. Moreover, the political space between a corporation and a candidate will produce a more dynamic extension of power than the space between a non-profit and a candidate. For these reasons, progressive forces must engage outside established political coalitions and build interlocking networks of media, economic, and political power.
Those believing in third parties or specific candidates should note that any such effortæwithout the accumulation of media, political and economic power in some larger networkæ invariably fades with the whims of the particular candidate they are backing. That’s another kind of investment risk. These structures have to be built into democratically organized and designed political and media spaces that can be readily used to continue to hold any politician accountable. We need to move beyond the cult of the individualæleft, center or right. Many progressive candidates fade away after election day and do not build permanent campaigns.
Trade unions with their backs against the wall will invest in Democratic Party politicians. But rather than simply support a third- or labor-party ballot line, or write blank checks to Democrats, all activists might do the following: take some proportion of the resources you would invest in a particular candidacy and place that in a fund tied to an accountability structure, like a candidate forum-based town meeting, that exists independently from your favorite candidate. This investment would continue if your candidate is elected, and be similarly useful if he or she loses. Consider this simply as a form of political insurance against a candidate’s breaking a promise or losing.
Votes usually correspond to Faustian bargains where more powerful elite groups pull the strings of competing candidates. This is why elections may be “traps for fools.” In contrast, voting for Harold Washington, Chicago’s most progressive mayor was not a trap. And the larger structure that can be built around an election is not a trap. I’m not referring to independent political action committees and phone banks. Those usually are dormant in between elections. I mean rather the kinds of structures like progressive media stations, forums, networks and political commitments elaborated above, supplemented by socially responsible media, schools for organizers, and various democratic economic institutions, including co-operatives and other forms of worker and community control.
Many of these structures already exist. Labor unions have a form of accountability insurance in The Workers Independent News, a progressive news network for the labor movement (see http://www.laborradio.org/). The Democracy Now! radio and TV network can also be part of this process. Some funds could also be placed in networks of cooperatives which could provide a supplementary power accumulation system. Examples include Equal Exchange in the U.S., a fair trade company, or Mondragon in Spain. Unfortunately, we lack the kind of co-ordinated action to use all of these as accountability structures in the current electoral cycle. We need to broaden the debate about the peace movement’s political strategy.