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Bronner writes: "Every four years, those to the left of the Democratic Party go through the same soul searching: to vote or not to vote; build a new party or identify with an existing party; stick with principle or accept the lesser of the two evils; bolster the system or demand an alternative."

Progressives need to vote strategically. (photo: Tree Hugger)
Progressives need to vote strategically. (photo: Tree Hugger)

The Election of 2012

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

16 October 12

Reader Supported News | Perspective


very four years, those to the left of the Democratic Party go through the same soul searching: to vote or not to vote; build a new party or identify with an existing party; stick with principle or accept the lesser of the two evils; bolster the system or demand an alternative. This kind of soul searching has become a boring ritual, and it continues in the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. Too many radicals still refuse to recognize the cost that others will pay - economically, socially, politically, and culturally - when the more reactionary candidate takes office. Third parties remain faced with a single-district, winner-take-all, system that undermines the prospect of sustaining any initial successes and leaves supporters wasting their votes. Old slogans like "Don't Vote, It Only Encourages Them!" no longer apply (if they ever did). The presidential election of 2012 remains very close. Limits on campaign spending have been abolished. Especially in swing states, victory might depend upon which party gets more of its base to the polls. Not to vote, or exhibit the appropriate partisan sense of urgency, only plays into the right-wing strategy.

From the moment that Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated bluntly that the primary goal of the Republican Party was to block the new administration and ruin any chance that the nation's first black president might have for re-election. Obama's campaign of 2007 had raised lofty expectations, and his constituency embraced the belief that the nation's first black president would transform the political system and usher in social justice. Even under the best circumstances, realizing such ideals would have been improbable. With the worst economic crisis of modern times, a newly deregulated financial sector, a burst of economic inequality, two catastrophic wars, and a neo-conservative foreign policy, it became impossible. Obama brought a cosmopolitan sophistication and an articulate intelligence to the White House that was sorely lacking in the Bush administration. His election gave a feeling of pride to people of color and hope for the future to many. He was bound to disappoint. But Obama was not elected to oversee a system in which innumerable factions and lobbies compete for power on an equal playing field. He was elected the president of a capitalist democracy.

Under this system, serving the interests of capital is the precondition for dealing with all other social and economic interests. Labor is subordinate to capital. Workers are forced to rely for their livelihood on the investment decisions of capitalists. Such is the structural imbalance of class power. At the same time, however, capitalist democracy has democratic elements: regular elections, civil liberties, and the universal franchise. Insofar as capital is becoming concentrated in ever fewer corporations, therefore, its political representatives must usually enter into coalitions with other classes and groups to legislate its concerns. Different sectors of capital are also often in competition. Subaltern groups can intervene in the process. Compromise is built into the system, but always within the existing imbalance of power that marks capitalist democracy. Every progressive politician must take that into account, whether this involves making a deal on bail-outs of banks, health-care, immigration, or support for the auto industry. But the constraints embedded within capitalist democracy were forgotten amid the euphoria attendant upon President Obama's election in 2008 and the spontaneous eruption of Occupy Wall Street. The general belief grew: Obama should have done more, he should have done it better, and he should have done it sooner.

Criticisms of this sort are par for the course. No reform is ever good enough; it can always be done better; and it always takes too long. Communists expressed these complaints about social democratic policy in the 1920s and 1930s and socialists directed them against liberals in the aftermath of World War II. Securing an imperiled radical identity is always a matter of utmost importance. Of course, there are completely legitimate criticisms of Obama. His refusal to frankly and openly address the question of poverty - or what Michael Harrington once called "the other America" - is disgraceful. Maintaining the American military presence in Afghanistan until 2014 and using drones in Pakistan has senselessly cost thousands of lives. Congressional investigations (leading to indictments) should have been launched against former officials of the Bush Administration on its handling of the Iraqi invasion. Guantanamo and other noxious prisons should have been closed. The brief window of opportunity that existed after Obama's election for dealing with the banks was probably not fully exploited. He was too timid in confronting Republicans; and he never used the bully pulpit to maximum effect.

While so many on the left condemn him as a sell-out, however, far more on the right consider him a "communist" or a "socialist." Claiming that most Americans don't understand the meaning of these political terms misses the point. Perhaps it is because radicals so often lack a meaningful political standard of judgment that they are out of touch. The question is not whether Obama is "really" a centrist sell-out, but to which Western socialist leaders and Democratic politicians he should meaningfully be compared. Actually the president is no more or less a "communist" or "socialist" than most European social democratic leaders. Revolution is on the shelf and, in its absence, compromise is unavoidable. Those who believe that legislative gains are possible in a capitalist democracy without support from certain sectors of capital simply don't understand the system they are contesting. That is especially the case in the absence of a sustainable and organized radical mass movement from below.

Some left-wing intellectuals have argued that the current election is "not about" Obama. But this is like suggesting that a rock concert is not about the main act. World-weary "centrist" Democrats also like to insist that Obama did nothing exciting and that this justifies their support for him. But that is simply untrue. He succeeded on healthcare, where other presidents failed, with a program that abolishes pre-existing conditions and covers 30,000,000 citizens previously without insurance. He has defended the integrity of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps and a host of other programs from withering attack by the right. He has opposed the Bush tax cuts that so radically favored the rich. His administration introduced progressive legislation on energy, mortgages, student loans, and unemployment benefits. It has abolished "Don't ask, don't tell," protected abortion, endorsed gay marriage, supported women's organizations like Planned Parenthood, simplified the transition from illegal to legal status for thousands of immigrants, cracked down on their illegal employment of by big business, and effectively challenged Republican efforts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Government bailouts of the banks and auto industries have had more than a measure of success, and The New York Times (May 1, 2010) described Obama's oversight legislation for the stock market as "the most sweeping regulatory overhaul since the aftermath of the great depression." The Obama administration has sought to tax companies that invest abroad and to roll back the Bush tax cuts that so radically favored the 1%. Obama has opposed austerity plans for dealing with the financial crisis in Southern Europe, resisted Israel's plans to bomb Iran, pulled troops out of Iraq, refused to intervene militarily in Syria, opened travel to Cuba, contested the neo-conservative reliance on pre-emptive strikes and contempt for international law, and radically improved the global standing of the United States.

Mitt Romney won his party's nomination by vacillating between defending the moderate conservatism of his political past and the radically right-wing drift of his party's mass base. Republicans promised to "starve the beast" that they identify with the welfare state. They wish to roll back "Obamacare," turn Social Security and Medicare into voucher programs, maintain existing tax inequities, and oppose unions. Theirs is the world of laissez-faire capitalism, fierce competition, and contempt for the ideal of economic justice. They seek radical de-regulation of markets, abolition of various government agencies, and unbridled free trade that allows for further "outsourcing" and capital flight. Republicans have opposed gay rights and gay marriage. They wish to make abortion illegal, shut down women's clinics, and render their organizations impotent. Their educational agenda opposes "critical thinking," evolution, and a multi-cultural narrative. They seek to break down "the wall of separation" between church and state. They wish to abolish limits on campaign spending and institute voting restrictions that would effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands among the poor and people of color. They insist upon stronger support of Israel, military action against Iran, intervention in Syria, 100,000 new troops for Afghanistan and Iraq, opposition to bettering relations with Cuba, and a rehabilitation of neo-conservative advisors and policy goals. Republican economic policy would return this country to the gilded age. Their supporters' cultural outlook is nostalgic for the old world in which white men ruled, and their politics attacks the democratic progress that subaltern groups have achieved. Their patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, their foreign policy is anchored in notions of imperial hegemony and lack of concern with international law, and their rhetoric conjures up images of fascism on the rise.

Every election is a choice between the lesser of the two evils, but some elections are more important than others. This is one of them. It is not about whether the present administration might have done more, done it better, done it faster - or done it with more flair. Nor is it simply about looming nominations to the Supreme Court or that, historically, social movements tend to flourish under Democratic rather than Republican regimes. Should the Republicans win this election, it would serve as a lasting symbolic endorsement for laissez-faire economics, constricting democracy, bigotry, educational autarky, and a foreign policy unapologetically predicated on militarism and contempt for internationalist goals. Those who cannot see the qualitative differences between the two parties, who cannot see the urgency in opposing the powerful reactionary threat, are living in Hegel's twilight where all cats are gray. Sectarianism has never built consciousness, but rather marginalized its advocates, thus leading to still more esoteric definitions of the true faith and further disillusionment. Criticism of the Democrats can begin the moment that they win the election. New threats to political liberty, new crises in foreign policy, compromises and serious budget cuts are on the agenda. Soon enough it will again be time to take to the streets. Countering political reaction today, however, requires partisan support for the radically lesser evil. Too many radical intellectuals are saying: I want to see Obama win but I won't do what I can for his re-election. They are hedging their bets. Thus, they are ignoring the most basic assumption linking theory and practice: "He who wills the end wills the means thereto."

Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor (PII) at Rutgers University and Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. The longer version of this article can be found at HYPERLINK ""

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