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What’s So Great About Running for President?

A Curious Defense of Presidential Politicking

I’ve been getting some of the same e-mails and other electronic messages from left Bernie Sanders supporters that I got from left Barack Obama supporters back in 2007 and 2008. The basic gist is that it is unfair for me to criticize their favorite Democratic Party presidential candidate from the “nihilistic and arch-radical Left” since that candidate is running, after all, for the White House as a major party contender. “You can’t really expect [Obama or Sanders] to step out against the American military Empire or against U.S. racism, deeply understood, or against capitalism, or against the bipartisan nature of the American plutocracy” (a much bigger target than the outsized wealth and power of Bernie’s “billionaire class”) the line goes, “when he’s making a serious effort for the Democratic nomination and the presidency of the United States. He could never win!”

I will leave aside the problematic nature of my correspondents’ assumption that their candidates actually want to be left opponents of U.S. capitalism, imperialism, and racism, deeply understood, in the first place. That supposition was particularly juvenile when applied to the fake-progressive, deeply conservative Obama but many of the nominally socialist Sanders’ left supporters also exude excessive faith in the portsided-ness of their hero.

With all due respect for the domestic policy and related electability differences between Sanders and the imperial Obama (there are few if any foreign policy differences to note), my answer to the left presidential-election devotees who contact me this year is largely the same as my response in 2007-08:  “You are correct,” I write. “A truly Left progressive opponent of U.S. imperialism, racism, and capitalism could not expect to be elected to the U.S. presidency. The ruling class and its media would never permit it. A presidential candidate who is serious about being major party-nominated and elected must stay within narrow parameters that validate the sanctity of the profits system, white privilege, and U.S. global empire. If by some very odd miracle a genuinely Left candidate succeeded in gaining the presidency, the rule would still hold. The nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire set the terms for ‘viable’ presidencies as well for ‘viable’ presidential candidates.”

So far, so good. My formulation is darker than their own, but my correspondents and I are on the same page to no small degree: it’s about the System, which exerts severe, power-serving limits on presidential candidates and presidents. The critical divergence comes when I ask my critics what – given the institutionally and doctrinally-imposed limits on what a presidential candidate can advocate and achieve – is so great about a “progressive” (fake or real) running for president? The defense my progressive correspondents offer of their politician against
paulstreet“hard left” criticism – that their candidate can’t be all that Left thanks to the reigning dollar-drenched and corporate-mediated political system and the ruling imperial ethos – raises the question of why Leftists should get into U.S. presidential politics to any but the most secondary degree (like perhaps taking two minutes to vote against Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Donald Trump and maybe even protest-voting for Jill Stein on the first Tuesday of November 2016) if at all. After all, the issues a serious presidential candidate can’t substantively and radically address (by my correspondents’ own acknowledgement) if he or she really wants to become commander in chief of the U.S. military are not small matters: imperialism, capitalism, and racism, deeply understood. These are what the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King described in his last years as “the triple evils that are interrelated.” All of them and other interrelated evils (I nominate extractivist eco-cide, patriarchy, and the rule of managerial and professional elites atop a savagely unequal corporate division of labor) must be militantly confronted and overcome if humanity is going to have any chance for a decent future.

Why Dr. King Had No Interest in Running for President

The biggest problem with left progressives getting more than marginally involved in U.S. presidential campaigns is not about the ideological and programmatic limits imposed on serious presidential candidates, however. A far more significant difficulty has to do with the critical question of how we define meaningful political activity and how we properly focus and expand our activist capacities. It’s that U.S. major party, candidate-centered electoral politics (and presidential politics above all) tends to suck energy and focus away from forms of popular engagement that are far more meaningful and effective when it comes both to improving the lives of ordinary people and to creating the ground for the radical systemic change that is required.

I like to remind my correspondents that left progressives obsessed with electoral politics approached the great social movement leader King to run for the U.S. presidency in 1968. He was gracious in turning his supplicants down but he wanted nothing to do with it. This was because King knew quite well, no doubt, that my correspondents and I are correct about what a presidential candidate cannot do or say if she or he wants to be an actual contender. King knew also that there is a great difference between participating (as Bernie Sanders did as a young man) in a great grassroots struggle for social justice like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement or the 1960s-70s antiwar movement or the 1930s industrial workers movement and making a serious run for the White House under the banner of the corporate and imperial Democratic Party and within the boundaries enforced on serious presidential challengers.

The first form of activism is worthwhile. The second type of politics is not – not under the present U.S. electoral game. It’s not just that it can’t deliver the goods and the far-reaching change we need. It is also, and more importantly, that it connects legitimate popular hopes for progressive change and social justice to an electoral regime that is designed and functions to destroy the grassroots popular movements required both for wining reforms and for advancing the deeper transformation the times demand – the “radical reconstruction of society itself” that Dr. King identified near the end of his life as “the real issue to be faced.”

The U.S. electoral racket is the longstanding graveyard of social movements and radical aspirations. It channels popular anger and excitement into a dead, money-soaked system and its quadrennial, highly personalized, corporate media-ted candidate-centered electoral pageants – as if that’s the real and only politics that matters. It isn’t. The development of rank-and-file resistance and pressure organizations and movement cultures strong enough that they can’t be ignored by organized wealth and power is far more meaningful.

As Howard Zinn explained seven years ago, criticizing the “election madness” that had “engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy: “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced [to act in accord with popular needs] by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” No amount of nominally socialist social-democratic posturing by a longstanding de facto Democrat like Bernie Sanders (whose progressive domestic policy agenda is fundamentally challenged and undermined by his ongoing commitment to the imperial U.S. Pentagon system) can change that basic underlying reality.

What’s so great about running for president on the master’s savagely time-staggered schedule for “politics,” with the standard childish and quadrennial focus on candidates instead of the major issues that live on beneath and beyond the nation’s purposely populace-marginalizing and corporate-managed spectacles of “democracy”? As Zinn noted in 2001, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in-in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

That’s why it was so essential for the system that the great 2011 Wisconsin protests on behalf of worker rights be shut down, its dynamism dissipated as it was directed into a doomed electoral effort to recall a Republican governor (Scott Walker) and replace him with a tepid Democrat. It’s also why the Democratic Obama White House and hundreds of mostly Democratic-controlled city governments acted to crush the Occupy Movement in the fall and winter of 2011 – this while Democrats stole Occupy’s populist rhetoric for the usual manipulative electoral purposes.

Magical Thinking

There are some on the Left, the radical left even, who want to believe (for strange, history-defying reasons) that the Sanders campaign will help advance the organizational structure required both for Zinn’s “direct action by concerned citizens” and (ultimately) for King’s “radical reconstruction.” In response I offer the sober reflections of the keen Left commentator and New York City-based Indypendent editor Arun Gupta:

“Leaving aside that Sanders is pushing for Keynesian policies, not socialist or even social democratic ones, his campaign is antithetical to movement building. Its top down, centered on one person, with no process or space for popular input to discuss his political failings, the limits of electoralism, or other strategies. After 2016 Sanders is not going to turn over his organization with its apparatus, lists and expertise to the left. Past experience — Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action — shows candidates retain tight control over their organization. Even in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party’s presidential nominee, but did not exert control over the organization, he failed to benefit the party despite the 2.9 million votes that he garnered…Expecting a presidential campaign to solve the problem of organization is magical thinking…. If America is the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, the American left is the province of the get-power-quick scheme. It’s always looking for the one tactic, the one protest, the one election that will change everything. [In reality, however], Building power that’s strong and flexible takes years in the trenches developing organization, trust, community, leadership, action, and theory. Taking an electoral shortcut to power means fracturing movements as those with the least power are pushed to the sidelines. Leftists may thrill at finding a ‘socialist’ horse on the electoral merry-go-round, but if they hop on board they’ll be the ones taken for a ride” (emphasis added).

Indeed. This is not to say that the grassroots social movements that we need to rejuvenate, develop, expand, merge, energize, and amplify should not seek to change U.S. electoral politics and policymaking in such a way that seeking high national office might be a worthy endeavor. Of course we should. In the meantime, however, running for U.S. president (which has to rank as one of the top narcissistic endeavors on Earth, by the way) is nothing to write home about. It encourages people to embrace an “easy” and at best “marginally useful” form of “politics” that functions at best as a “poor substitute” for – and at worst as a potent enemy to – the difficult but essential work of day-to-day organizing and activism that constitutes the most urgent task for those who want to steer the nation’s political culture and policy in a decent, democratic, and sustainable direction.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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