Presidential elections, and I say this in the nicest way possible, seem to bring out prolonged periods of insanity. Presidential elections are, to a large extent, exercises in insanity. We are asked to suspend all of our critical judgments. We are asked to forget the past and accept an alternate reality where, if an assertion is made strongly enough, then it becomes reality.
I’m told that this is the most important presidential election that the nation has ever seen. I’m told that the economic downturn has only made this election that much more important. Not only that, but I’m told this with a passion that is seldom seen. It is the same feeling you get when you’re talking to a true believer. The “we have to elect Obama” sentiment is expressed as an article of faith. It need not be justified; it simply needs to be expressed. And expressed it is, with assured righteousness & zeal. The dogma of the true believers is accompanied by incredulous disbelief in the simplemindedness of those McCain supporters. There is a certain amount of arrogance … superiority that is present in some of those “enlightened” enough to support Obama. There is a gross sense of superiority in the proclamations that “we” live in a blue state.
To question this dogma is worse than blasphemy: it is an affront to the “liberal mentality.” And the liberal mentality is as much an article of faith as any that exists. All protestations that this preternatural faith in the ultimate goodness of Democrats is completely unfounded – not only unfounded, but utterly false – go unheard. Reminders that Bill Clinton brought us an “end to welfare as we know it,” more stringent terrorism and death penalty legislation (without which the Patriot Act never would have happened), NAFTA, and eight years of war in Iraq, sanctions, and bombing the world over are dismissed. History hasn’t shown us that Democrats are better leaders, but faith demands that we believe it.
Whenever talk with a good liberal turns to politics, it inevitably goes down this path. And inevitably I leave tired.
This electoral amnesia seems to know no bounds; it seems to affect everyone to some degree. I was listening to KFCF a few days back and Cornel West was the guest on the KPFA Morning Show. I am a great admirer of Dr West. I don’t pretend to be his equal in intellect or activism, but I could not help but feel saddened by the points he made.
Dr West makes the point that Obama, as a Lincoln-like figure, “would be a thermostat rather than just a thermometer.” Rather than simply reflecting consensus, Obama would reshape consensus. Dr West suggests that like Lincoln, Obama “has to be given a chance, but first things first, he’s got to win…then he has to be allowed to stretch out and become the grand statesmen.” Dr West points out that Lincoln didn’t go into the presidency looking to end slavery, but that he became the statesmen. Then Dr West made the statement that “there is no Abe Lincoln becoming a statesmen without Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
And with that statement, all the problems of electoral politics rush to the forefront. We don’t need another Lincoln, or an Obama; what we need is more Fredrick Douglasses and Harriet Beecher Stowes. We need more Martin Luther Kings, Big Bill Haywoods, and Helen Kellers. We don’t need more FDRs, we need more Eugene Debs. We don’t need more JFKs, we need more Philip Berrigans. We don’t need to look to great men to lead us to the promised land, we need to recognize the power that we, the nameless and “the powerless,” possess when we assert our power rather than make assertions of faith directed at the great leader myths.
There are two reasons why these myths are particularly dangerous. First, they are simply false. The legislature, the executive, and the judiciary have not pushed this nation forward. They have gone along with popular movements kicking and screaming. It was not any of the three branches of government that led to the advances in voting rights, labor rights, or the end of slavery, it was mass popular movements. It was not Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, or even FDR that had anything to do with advances in labor rights or suffrage. It wasn’t Brandeis, Berger, Brennan, Holmes or Marshall that led to the advancement of this nation as a more equitable state. It wasn’t JFK, Robert Kennedy or Johnson in the White House, or Mansfield and Dirksen in the Senate that lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was people on the street marching and fighting for a more equitable nation. It was many of those same people that brought about the end to the Vietnam War, not the mainstream media or any of those mentioned above. It is this very misperception, the creation of dubious hero leaders that leads to the second danger: disempowerment. We are left to petition our overseers and vote for leaders and wish a wish based on the most unfounded faith that they will make things better.
It is not simply wishes based on unfounded faith, but that these elections and religious faith in candidates draw so much energy. So much so that after the election, there is a vacuum left in its wake. The time, energy, & money expended on these elections necessitate that all those working fervently for the election of their candidate, understandably, need to rest, but just enough rest to prepare for the next go-round. No other campaign/movement garners as much prolonged energy, money, & time as presidential elections. And all of that energy, money, & time unnecessarily zaps energy from movements and issues that desperately need our attention. The anti-war movement has seen a precipitous drop in proportion to the rise in the time and energy spent on the Obama campaign. How does one explain all the effort on the part of the anti-war movement to further the Obama campaign if not through political/historical amnesia? True, Obama talks about a nebulous pullout of Iraq, but that is partially in order to ratchet up our war effort in Afghanistan. Trading one war for another does not a peace candidate make.
And in a time of unprecedented environmental destruction, it is utter insanity that our two major presidential candidates profess that they have the plan to not only get the economy back on track, but to get the economy growing again. It is not fun to say, but it needs saying. The economy does not need to grow, rather it needs to begin to shrink, and shrink drastically. And if it is going to shrink drastically, as nature necessitates, then we must consider ways to make society equitable, not wealthier. In this light, giving banks a $1trillion bailout so that they can begin loaning money to kick start the growth of the economy is not only wrong headed, but suicidal.
My hope is that, after the election, regardless the outcome, we tap into the revolutionary spirit of Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Big Bill Haywood, Helen Keller, Eugene Debs, Phillip Berrigan, Martin Luther King, and those nameless others. That we remember that power is centered not in the halls of government, but in the hands of the people working collectively. That change for the better does not start with the leadership of Barack Obama or John McCain, but on the streets.
CARLOS FIERRO lives in Fresno, CA, where he teaches Journalism & Mass Communication at a local college, and is currently engaged in a spat with the City of Fresno over his killing his lawn. He is the founding editor of The Undercurrent, an independent monthly newspaper. He can be reached at editor@FresnoUndercurrent.net.