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The Limits of Liberalism

In 2006 I did something monumentally stupid, something that can only be chalked up to pure, unadulterated ignorance and the folly of youth. I voted. For a Democrat. And I did so — wait for it — under the impression I might be helping to end a war.

Those readers still with me, please control your laughter and let me explain. At the time I justified my decision on the basis that maybe, just maybe, if the Democrats took over Congress they might feel tempted — if only for purely partisan political gain — to fulfill their stated goal of bringing the Iraq war to an end. I know. I know.

In my defense, I only voted; there were no late nights at the phone bank for me, no impassioned letters to the editor imploring my fellow citizens to fulfill their patriotic duty. Others, however, whom I respect and share much in common politically, did dedicate both their time and financial resources to electing Democrats under the genuine, but wholly mistaken, belief they would stand up to the Bush administration every once in a while. We know how that turned out.

And that brings me to the recent primary elections, which I believe illustrate a point I have learned many times over since ’06 — namely, that electoral politics is at best a diversion, a tried-and-true means for the political establishment to channel public anger with the status quo in such a way that the status quo is never seriously threatened. Oh yes, the unwashed masses can celebrate the ritual Kicking Out of the Bums — Good bye Arlen Specter! See ya in hell Blanche Lincoln! — but only with one ginormous catch: they inevitably have to select some other bum to take their place.

Take the race to be the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, a contest that pitted the turncoat Specter against congressman and former admiral Joe Sestak. Despite the backing of President Obama and support from the rest of the Democratic establishment, Sestak was able to beat the decrepit, principle-less incumbent. A success, right?

That’s how it’s being played on the liberal blogosphere. “An amazing night!” wrote OpenLeft’s Chris Bowers upon receiving news of Sestak’s win. “The energy is with Dems and progs again!”

Except, well, it’s not so clear electing the younger, more photogenic Sestak serves any real “progressive” goal, outside the fleeting ephemera that comes with knowing Arlen Specter is probably feeling sad for himself somewhere. Should Sestak win the seat in November, he’ll probably hold the seat for decades, which certainly won’t improve the lives of those suffering under U.S. military occupations and the constant threat of Predator drone strikes — not that Democratic primary voters much cared — given Sestak’s wholehearted embrace of Obama’s 30,000-plus troop surge in Afghanistan and his ramping up of the illegal, undeclared war in Pakistan.

The hated Specter, on the other hand, at least made a show of questioning Obama’s foreign policy, even declaring his opposition to the surge. Details.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, corporate Democrat (ed. note: redundant) Blanche Lincoln has been forced into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a former Clinton administration official whose chief qualifier appears to be that his name is not Blanche Lincoln. He also has excellent hair. But with the demise of Lincoln’s political career increasingly appearing to be a given, even proponents of Halter, like FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher — a genuinely well-intentioned activist whose work I often admire, and who helped spearhead the effort to unseat Lincoln — concedes he is “no raging liberal.” He is, however, “a Democrat, whereas Lincoln is a corporatist.” To which I say, there’s a difference? Again, to hop on my hobby horse, there certainly will be no difference for the victims of America’s bipartisan-endorsed warfare state, as Halter’s campaign page makes clear he’s committed to “ensuring success in Iraq and Afghanistan and crafting a strong, forward-leaning foreign policy.” For those at home, the words “forward-leaning” probably mean the good people of Yemen and/or Iran should seriously start thinking about investing in some bomb shelters.

As I’ve argued before, instead of activists spending so much in the way of time and resources in electing more and better politicians, why not skip the middle man? Instead of raising funds and organizing house parties for some snake oil salesman, crossing your fingers and praying they uphold 1/8th of their campaign promises, why not redirect those efforts to taking matters into one’s own hands — relying on the power of people voluntarily acting in concert to improve their communities rather than hoping some asshole politician sends an earmark your way? I understand the impulse to support what appears to be incrementalist reform, but at a certain point the dedication to incrementalism neuters the ability of people to consider the holistic, systemic reform the U.S. needs.

Instead of banking on a politician improving our world, my advice? Improve yourself. Be an example to others. Work not on the behalf of a political party, but your community. Put simply, forget the polling booth and head to the soup kitchen. At least then you won’t be complicit in a bloodied, immoral system.

CHARLES DAVIS can be reached at: davis.charles84@gmail.com.

WORDS THAT STICK

 

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Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @charliearchy.

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