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Hope, Lost Along the Road of Electoral Politics

The exiled anarchist, Emma Goldman, said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” After 10 months on the road, first in the Sanders’ campaign for president, working in several Northeastern states, and now in Zephyr Teachout’s (What Our Revolution calls a “down-ticket”) campaign for Congress in Upstate New York, I’m weary from being on the road and on the phone.

And in the end, Emma Goldman was probably right and the whole electoral enterprise is nothing but a gigantic waste of time. A Sanders’ presidency could have meant some measure of reform (A Stein presidency would have meant definite reform), and Teachout in Congress would be a boon in many ways.

The 1960s and early 1970s seemed to point in the direction of candidates who could foster basic change in the system. Maybe that was also like a desert mirage, or perhaps blinded by the false hope of school civics lessons? Candidates like Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern were soundly defeated and any of the inroads in humanizing the economic-political-social climate were crushed and the ashes were stamped out by the outrageously right-wing presidency of Ronald Reagan just one decade later, ushering in the anti-union, pro-corporate, pro-war climate that thrives today and is best typified by the candidacies of both Trump and Clinton. And except for the fascistic tinge to his campaign, there’s only a small difference in the two presidential candidates. It’s true that agents of the federal government wouldn’t come knocking on leftists’ doors in a Clinton presidency, but what would it matter that there are leftists at all in a society where corporate greed and militarism go largely unchecked?

I often pass Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s homes and Roosevelt’s presidential library and museum in Hyde Park, New York. I often visit there, also. Many say that Franklin Rosevelt simply saved capitalism from its own excesses during the Great Depression, but despite critics being accurate to a degree, there was a sense in the 1930s and early 1940s that people mattered. Of course, there existed massive amounts of racism and other forms of hate throughout the society in that historical epoch, but programs such as the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Writers’ Project showed that government, pushed by organized labor, responded to some degree to the problems caused by the growth of capitalism.

Now we have a predatory system of economics that twists nearly every dimension of life. Cities and towns are littered with huge consumer outlets and the poor have been relegated to ghettos and rural outposts of poverty. Endless wars suck the lifeblood out of the system and most heed the advice of George W. Bush at the beginning of the epoch of endless wars in 2001 when he told people to go out and shop. What could be better advice? Don’t question the system that has caused such grotesque levels of economic inequality and environmental ruin, just go out to the gaping emptiness and impersonal local shopping mall and shop until you drop. In other words, “Be silent, consume.”

I imagine the Roosevelts would be aghast at what passes today for democracy in the U.S. Liberalism has been supplanted by neoliberalism, and that, in conjunction with the extreme right-wing, has given us the false hope of fundamentalist religion and the national security state.

Opening up the car door to walk up the driveway of yet another rural home with campaign literature and campaign printouts in this dying landscape, Emma Goldman’s words sound all the more cogent and appropriate all these decades later!  Looking back across all of these many decades, its seems that protest worked at least to a degree long ago before the military-industrial complex became so powerful and much of protest turned to boutique-style identity politics, which do have a place, but subordinate to larger and more pressing issues.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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