A year ago, thanks to Occupy Wall Street and the movements it spawned, American politics took a turn for the better. People were in motion – a small minority, of course, but enough to put change on the agenda, not in the meretricious Obama sense, but for real.
Occupy got it right: one percent of the population, or perhaps just a fraction of one percent, owns just about everything, to the great and growing detriment of everyone else. A new consciousness was taking hold.
The thought then was that leaderless spontaneity was key to the movement’s success. Perhaps so. But without political leadership, the inevitable happened; after flourishing briefly, Occupy sputtered to a halt.
It didn’t help that the authorities clamped down. The Obama White House was almost certainly complicit, though the extent of its involvement is still impossible to determine.
This is not to say that Occupy was only a flash in the pan or that it changed nothing. By no means. But, for now, pre-Occupy politics is back.
The ninety-nine to one split is as real as it ever was, and the consequences of taking consciousness of it are momentous. But, for the time being, that consciousness is politically inert.
The lackluster electoral circus currently underway is both a symptom and a cause of this unfortunate turn of events. And it is a dreary spectacle indeed.
Thanks to the attention lavished upon every detail of the horse race, the politically salient division now is not between the very few who own almost everything and everyone else, but between the almost fifty percent of likely voters who usually vote for Democrats and the almost fifty percent who usually vote for Republicans.
The Republican Party is worse of course, by any relevant measure, and the differences are consequential for peoples’ lives. Without exception, however, they fall at the margins of political life.
Because, like Republicans, Democrats too are bought and paid for, they are as hell-bent as their rivals on doing all they can for the one percent. The difference is that they talk a good earful when it is expedient to do so, and liberals eat it up. The will to believe is a mighty force.
So is the capacity for self-deception. The constituencies that comprise the Democratic base are especially adept at it. Labor leaders are the worst of all. They empty their unions’ coffers and mobilize their rank-and-file to do yeoman’s work getting Democrats elected, demanding nothing in return and getting back even less. It is as if their aim is to demonstrate the futility of supporting the lesser evil.
It is telling that in those instances when Democrats actually do act to advance the interests of the people who vote for them, it is typically in areas where the interests of the one percent are not involved and where popular demands have a conservative cast. Obama’s words – only words! — supporting gay marriage is a case in point.
To be sure, Democrats are less indifferent than Republicans to the fate of the ninety-nine percent, and less driven to dismantle the institutions of the affirmative state. The Republican Party is the natural home for libertarian ideologues — or, worse, Ayn Rand style proponents of unbridled egoism like Romney’s pseudo-smart guy running mate, Paul Ryan.
In the “bipartisan” war on progress now raging in Washington, the Democrats’ lack of fervor and ideological commitment is arguably a mark in their favor. But it also speaks ill of their character. It is one of those many instances in our world where, as Yeats put it, “the best lack all conviction.”
And so it is that Democrats minister to the interests of the one percent for reasons that are more “pragmatic” than ideological. No doubt, the less compromised among them are embarrassed by their party’s, and their own, retrograde politics; they would rather move forward than back. It hardly matters, though; whatever is in their hearts, when it comes down to it, they are on the wrong side.
Paradoxically, this makes them even more useful to the one percent than their Republican rivals.
The reason is plain. When their corporate paymasters demand it and conditions are opportune, they can deliver their constituencies or at least diminish popular opposition to corporate and bankster predations.
Bill Clinton did more to implement the so-called Reagan Revolution (actually a counter-revolution) than Reagan himself or either Bush. Should he win next month, as he likely will, count on Barack Obama to leave his predecessor standing in the dust.
For reasons of tradition and life-style affinities, plutocrats usually prefer Republicans to Democrats. This is very evident this electoral cycle, where Romney is the favorite of the grandees. How could it be otherwise? He is one of them, while Obama is only a fan.
They can live with that, though. Greed conquers all.
Plutocrats know too that they don’t need their favorites to win. Even when Democrats hold all the levers of power, Republican true believers lead the way. Recall how the Tea Party called the shots after 2009, despite massive Democratic victories the year before.
In short, Republicans are good at putting noxiousness on the agenda, but not at making it happen. They are good too at playing defense; but their offense is pathetic.
Thanks to their dumb obstinacy and the pusillanimity of their opponents, they have proven themselves eminently capable of blocking modest Democratic efforts at milquetoast reforms.
But when Republicans in power propose something more than usually reactionary — dismantling the remnants of New Deal and Great Society advances, for example, or undoing environmental protections or other obviously useful regulations – a miracle happens: Democrats grow backbones.
This is bad news for the one percent. They do best when Democrats are in their usual invertebrate condition.
This was apparently their thought in 2008. It was enlightened self-interest, not any sense of noblesse oblige that brought so many of them into the Obama fold. They got what they paid for too, and not just at the policy level. Had the rule of law not gone missing in Obama’s Justice Department, many of them would now be doing time at Club Fed.
What ingrates! They are as bad as the Cheneys and other Bush era war criminals. Could it be, as reported, that the tycoons jumped ship because Obama doesn’t ask them over to the White House enough or solicit their opinions as much as they’d like, or because he hurt their itsy-bitsy feelings when he once or twice uttered a “populist” word – again, just a word?
They really ought to get over it if they’re serious about privatizing and deregulating to their hearts’ content. Obama can do more for them than Romney can; and, if they encourage him right, maybe he will.
It’s not just that he can bring Democrats and the constituencies they represent along. He can also keep Occupy consciousness at bay; something Romney cannot do.
More than the usual Republican princeling – more than George W. Bush, for example – Romney, in every word and gesture, suggests government of, by and for the one percent. His authenticity is admirable, but it is the very last thing plutocrats need.
To be sure, Obama is no longer the Rorschach figure he used to be; there are none so foolish still as to project their hopes for “change” on him. But at least he doesn’t ooze with contempt for “the forty-seven percent” of us who are irresponsible moochers in the eyes of self-pitying vulture capitalists (“job creators”!) like Mitt Romney. And, when it comes down to it, he is no more likely to irk all but the most benighted segments of the rest of the ninety-nine percent either.
Needless to say, some of the yahoos enlisted into service by the pillars of the GOP will never reconcile to the fact that the President of the United States is a person of color with a Muslim name and an elite education. But leaving them aside, there is a torrent of salutary and urgently needed class hatred out there waiting to be released. Occupy revealed it, and the plutocrats fear its eruption. Central casting could not come up with a more apt figure than Mitt Romney for setting it off.
This is why I think it is an open question who the lesser evil is. I confess that in my heart, I feel, as does most everyone who is not a Tea Party wingnut or a corporate poltroon, that it somehow must be President Drone. But the evidence doesn’t unequivocally back this belief.
So long as Romney devotes himself to shoring up his base, and so long as we focus only on the candidates themselves and not on the larger consequences of electing one or the other, it is easy enough to see Obama as the less bad of the two.
The October 22 edition of The Nation magazine contains ten articles and an editorial that tell all there is to tell about how awful a Romney presidency would be. But since just accentuating the negative can never make for a ringing endorsement, some of The Nation writers also exercise all the ingenuity at their command to find positive things to say about Obama’s governance. It’s a fool’s errand.
In the end, the lesser evil argument is all Obama boosters have. And, again, it’s not even clear that it’s true – that, taking all the consequences into account, a second Obama term really would be better (less bad) than a Romney administration. What is clear is just that lesser evil thinking is what has gotten us to this sorry state.
Bear in mind too that here in what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia memories are short. Should Romney and his handlers decide that his base is sufficiently secure – in other words, that the yahoos hate Obama enough – he can always try to put his governor of Massachusetts persona back on.
With enough super fund money behind him, he might even succeed. If he does, he would undercut almost everything The Nation writers and editors have to say. Compared to a “moderate” Republican, which is what Romney used to be, Obama is no prize.
* * *
The impending election has been, at best, a regrettable detour, no matter who the lesser evil is, and no matter who wins. This is because it has taken political initiatives consistent with the consciousness the Occupy movement raised off the agenda.
In its place, we have had imposed upon us a fixation on the electoral process and its outcomes, and a conventional wisdom, according to which what matters, for both presidential candidates, are just two things: keeping their respective bases on board, enough so that sufficient numbers will turn out to vote; and winning the hearts and minds of “independents.”
Independents are like potential consumers in marketing campaigns. They don’t know enough or care enough to have firm views about which piece of schlock to buy, and are therefore prone to the manipulations of advertisers and other assorted hucksters.
In that regard what matters most is how much money advertisers have to spend. Obama’s and Romney’s both have obscene amounts, but Romney’s have more. However they also have a harder sell, inasmuch as their piece of schlock has so far done his level best to alienate everyone except stupid white geezers and the women who love them. That’s why, at this point, it’s probably a wash.
Keeping the base on board has so far been easy for Democrats, and will remain so unless Romney finds a way to etch-a sketch his way out of the hole he has dug for himself. Romney, or rather the useful idiots he has had to placate, are scary enough to give the constituencies that normally vote Democratic all the reason they needed to stand by their man.
Meanwhile, Obama aversion is enough to keep those useful idiots and the one per-centers whose interests they champion in the same matrimonial bed.
Of course, apathy is a problem for both sides. Tea Partiers hate Romney too; they just hate Obama more. And even the most ardent Obama supporters concede that he has been, to put it mildly, a major disappointment. An enthusiasm deficit is universal.
But, unlike two years ago, when Tea Party passions ran high, there is no enthusiasm gap. Apart from a few unenlightened one per centers who just can’t get their heads around the idea that an Obama victory would be good for them, no one will be voting for anyone, only against the guy they like even less.
Even so, I still think it’s Obama’s election to lose. We’ll know soon enough if he’s up to the task.
The one sure thing is that no matter who wins – not just the White House but Congress as well – we will end up getting more or less the same thing. This was true in 2008, when large numbers of people thought they had elected “change” and “hope” and found that, although the cast of characters had changed, they ended up getting a third George W. Bush term with only cosmetic modifications.
This time the choice is between a devil we know and a thoroughly loathsome devil we’d be better off never having met, but whose attempted depredations will elicit resistance and who will look to all the world like the face of the ruling class, which is exactly what he is.
Fortunately, for me and for the residents of forty other states where the Electoral College results are already effectively known, this is more a theoretical than a practical dilemma. That is why I will vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party without any hesitation or (irrational but unavoidable) second thoughts, and why I urge others to do so as well.
It’s a futile gesture, but it’s better than not voting at all, and better by far than piling on votes for a lesser evil. If I lived in a so-called battleground state, I expect I would hesitate more, but I would probably end up doing the same thing.
The Occupy movements augured hope for a different kind of politics. But that was before this awful election season cast hope aside. Elections do that; when they are held in unsettled conditions, they tend to quash popular ventures. Because the Occupy movements had no organized political expression, it was all but inevitable that that tendency would be expressed this time around.
But the storm will pass; it has less than a month left to work its nefarious effects. When it’s over, we’ll find ourselves with an Obama or a Romney in the White House and with Democrats or Republicans running the Senate and House; in other words, we’ll be more or less back where we were.
Or in an even worse place, as the one percent escalates the class war it has been waging relentlessly, and as Democrats and Republicans, each in their own way, continue to do what they can to assure that its will be done.
But maybe Occupy consciousness can get back on track too; and not just for “the worse, the better” reasons. After November 6, a major obstacle in its way will finally be removed.
Time will tell. It’s too soon now to know what damage has been done. But it’s not unreasonable to hope. And it is indeed something to hope for.
Unlike the Obama-Romney contest and nearly every other race to be decided next month, a revived Occupy movement or, better still, an Occupy movement that moves on to a yet uncharted but more expressly political phase could change everything – not just to the relief of self-deceived liberals, but genuinely for the better.
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).