Solidarity is the foundation of building political power. When an elected official steps in and lends their voice to an issue that we care about, our voices are amplified. Elected officials are theoretically there to speak up on our behalf, fight for what we believe in, and to take positions that are risky.
The problem is that we ascribe the same amount of value to every statement that an elected official makes, no matter how calculated and self-serving it is. More often than not, elected officials are bound by message discipline that keeps them from the kind of nuanced judgments required by social issues.
When they speak up on issues that matter to us or they speak out against an issue that plagues us, they’re rarely taking an uncalculated risk. It takes very little work of reading between the lines when that message discipline helps them build power. If they’re repeating a position instead of responding to the actual content of an issue, they’re hoping to sell us a vehicle without us ever taking a peek under the hood.
When any public figure, especially elected officials, is anti-Semitic, homophobic, or accused of human rights abuses, we want others to speak up. However, as 84% of Americans think money has too much influence in politics, nearly the same number are afflicted with magical thinking when they assume elected officials are speaking from the heart.
How Many Benjamins To Screw In a Light Bulb?
Within moments of Ilhan Omar posting some fairly banal tweets about the role of money in politics via lobbying groups like AIPAC, she’s faced an aggressive backlash. Omar’s background and ethnicity have been linked to her comments ad nauseam. Islamophobes have cravenly relished these comments, coming from a Muslim woman, and presumptively taken their meaning to be anti-Semitic.
The fact that there’s a loose argument to be made for this lends it validity and attracts our attention away from the content of her statement. She’s questioning the role of money leading the way of policy and opinion. In questioning AIPAC, she revealed that the group is so good at lobbying that it’s a sin to claim that they’re lobbyists.
Many officials who’ve benefited from their association with AIPAC, which requires members to donate to elected officials, have tried to shame Omar. These electeds are nowhere to be found when real anti-Semitism arises in their own backyards.
Let’s take Carolyn Maloney’s response as an example, from a congresswoman who has taken several opportunities to call for Democratic party unity. Congresswoman Maloney stated that Omar’s “personal and anti-Semitic attacks” were unwelcome and disturbing. Let’s remind ourselves of Omar’s actual comments.
In response to Omar criticizing Israel’s national policies, GOP leader Kevin McCarthy likened her political criticism to Steve King’s claim that white supremacy has been stigmatized. There were no clear statements that McCarthy claimed Omar said to be offensive, certainly none claiming that anti-Semitism deserved the right to oxygen. The only real policy that could be pointed to was Omar’s support for BDS, a political position of boycotting products and services linked to the nation, was somehow offensive.
When we boycott products from Chik-Fil-A, we aren’t demonizing the people who work for Chik-Fil-A. We’re disputing the political positions of the people at the top. It’s believable that American consumers are sophisticated enough to critique a country without turning their thoughts to hate speech. Hate for injustice isn’t an injustice, though it’s a common swerve for those accused of injustice.
Elected officials critical of Omar are the ones who chose to plunge our politics into a state of cognitive dissonance where there’s no difference between criticizing the national policies of Israel and criticizing all Jews. In fact, the response has led to wild flights of fancy which have unleashed some toxic Islamophobia. No state with a lobbying influence over our elected officials should go unchecked, whether we’re talking about Russia, Canada, or Israel.
If elected officials like Carolyn Maloney are so concerned with anti-Semitism, why don’t they ever show up when it matters? Recently, a Manhattan GOP club had their membership packed by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes, only to elect as president a consultant for Alternativ Für Deutschland, the rising neo-Nazi party in Germany. A few people protested, but right under Maloney’s nose, neo-fascists gained real political power, with the ability to put people on the ballot in New York State and to run against her for Congress.
This rallying against anti-Semitism is nothing more than posturing to benefit a powerful lobby which brags about its hold over elected officials. They only take it seriously when it’s a rhetorical gesture and an escape hatch to avoid tough conversations.
The ferocity of the attacks in response to Ilhan Omar amounts to empty power-brokering because not one elected official has joined her criticism of AIPAC’s power. How juvenile are we to be sold and to buy an argument that criticizing the role of a country’s politics in the world can only mean that we hate its citizens? Islamophobes love this argument but most of us don’t live and die by that perspective.
The Enemy of my Enemy
In New York, an elected official very directly criticized an entire identity group, talking of their power over politics. Bronx Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr. wasn’t talking about a group like AIPAC or a specific lobby when he said that homosexuals control New York City Council. If people embroiled in the Ilhan Omar statements were seeking an example of what it actually looks like when someone blames an identity group for conspiring to control politics, they have one.
Following the statements the Taxi Commission chair made on the taxi driver-focused show “El Desahogo” in NYC, Ruben Diaz Sr. has since doubled down. Corey Johnson, openly-gay city council speaker and mayoral hopeful, has asked for him to step down. He even punished Diaz Sr., by dissolving the Taxi subcommittee Johnson created to reward Diaz for his vote to help him become city council speaker.
Corey Johnson even visited an ill Diaz Sr. in the hospital to lobby him for that vote in early 2018. He did so despite the fact that the 74-year old Diaz has played the role of a homophobic minister for decades. His hate is well-documented, yet because political power was at stake, now-Speaker Johnson took a calculated risk by giving power to a homophobe.
Since Diaz Sr.’s homophobia is so well documented, it came up several times during his 2017 Democratic City Council primary in the Bronx. There were several viable and experienced candidates who ran in the primary that the many now-upset city council members refused to take a stand for in 2017. They feared retribution from the then-state senator and his son, the Bronx Borough president, who defended his father then and is calling for his resignation now.
Fear of losing a job is a powerful motivator for too many legislators. If we ever talk ourselves into thinking our ethics matter, we need to pump the brakes and remind ourselves of moments like this one. Our elected officials march side by side while power-brokering with our sworn enemies when we’re not looking.
The Hawks Circle Like Vultures
In late 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a speech about an axis of evil in Latin America. He decried Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as a “sordid cradle of communism” in the Americas. He said that President Trump would be taking direct action against them.
In the early weeks of 2019, a member of National Assembly in Venezuela named Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of the country. The problem is that Guaidó is facing the fact that there’s still a seated and democratically elected president named Nicolás Maduro. In the event that the president is deposed, the president of the National Assembly, a position Guaidó assumed in early January 2019, becomes president.
U.S. elected officials and the Trump administration have found common ground in supporting Guaidó, despite the Maduro’s constitutionally-grounded insistence that he is still the president.
Nancy Pelosi, who defends the standards of democracy that we should uphold in the U.S.A. by supporting investigations of Russian interference in 2016, is now fighting democracy abroad. Disagreements with a democratically elected president are one thing, but sparking a coup and supporting regime change is another.
This position puts her on the side of her sworn enemy, under the advisement of John Bolton, and interrupts the democratic process for the Venezuelan people.
Bolton is a vehement interventionist who believes that the U.S. can and should violate treaties, accords, and international law when necessary. Bolton, who has vehement disdain for the UN, is now supported by the liberal darling with the golf clap, Nancy Pelosi.
Since we won’t see any of these figures in front of a court of law for violating any treaties or subverting democracy, the court of public opinion is what matters. With the right-wing hawks happy to have a liberal hero on their side and the do-no-wrong halo Pelosi is wearing now, she’ll rally bipartisan support for a crime against democracy.
Where does her sudden interest in Venezuela’s politics come from? Pelosi told an NYU student a few years ago that Democrats are capitalists, in case we’re curious where her interests lie. Whether it’s the red-baiting or the pressure from the energy industry to support a president who wants to privatize Venezuela’s oil reserves, time will tell. Either way, her solidarity smells suspiciously of power-brokering that’s conditional on her own interests.
When is Solidarity Sincere?
Unconditional support, like unconditional love, leaves us with some strange and unsavory bedfellows. In a perfect world, we could elect people who have been honest about their values and then go about our business for the next few years until the next election. We would have strict term limits so that we would be electing people not to a lifelong job but to a temporary role in public service, as it was imagined at our founding.
When someone is on our side, we need to continue to scrutinize their motives. Trumpism has brought a lot of us together under a large and unexpected umbrella, but there’s a reason we didn’t know each other before.
We weren’t always on the same side of many important issues. When we see someone saying what we want them to say, our applause is dangerous and especially loud in the echo chamber of politics.
It’s hard to know when solidarity is sincere. As we dive into the next presidential cycle, we need to remain steadfast in watching the actions of the people who want our support, not merely their ability to perform that support.