Friday, November 7, 2008


While this election was certainly historic by most measures, it is difficult to say what exactly it will mean in terms of the political direction the next four years will take. Certainly there will be some pull to the left. But will Obama rule as a liberal or a centrist? Looking at his positions or political appointments so far has not necessarily been any more enlightening. And I think this coyness is in some sense exactly his purpose.

Lets assume Obama wants to change the argument. He seems to avoid defining his positions on wedge issues much to the chagrin of liberals and conservatives alike. Perhaps there is some wisdom in this. The republican agenda for the last 30 years has been to use wedge issues to break off large pieces of the broad democratic base. Roe v. Wade didn't become an issue until strategists like Pat Buchanan realized it could pull Catholics and Evangelicals from the New Deal coalition. Affirmative action was at its creation a compromise offered to avoid more radical and effective assertions of worker and community control of the means of production. Now, liberals have been forced into an argument where they have to defend a compromise, an argument designed to exploit racial tension. The conservative strategy has been to turn human rights issues into identity issues. Isolate the voter, and create a nation of voters who think purely in terms of subjective political arguments. The Karl Rove wager is that a nation of people who only think in terms of their own self interests will vote republican every time. For a long time, it seemed he might be right.

Now take a look at something like the Obama Tax-cut. If a republican doesn't have a leg to stand on, they can always accuse the other guy of trying to raise your taxes. But what if you cut the taxes of 95% of americans while raising taxes on the super-rich to Clinton era levels? To call tax cuts for the richest americans Conservative and tax cuts for almost all americans Communist is more than just a little hard to swallow, and it cuts straight to the heart of the argument. You never have to say, "Voting for a republican is a vote against your own class." It just suddenly becomes obvious. Find the pivot point that redefines the issues in terms of unity over division. Because a nation of voters that think in terms of their collective interests will vote Democrat, every time. That, is the Obama wager.

Something Chomsky talks about a lot is that the vast majority of americans are well to the left of most politicians, especially Obama. They want abortions, free health care, fair trade, and so on. Only they assume that's also what their politicians want, which is not really the case. It is just rarely discussed in depth. I will agree that pains are made to avoid discussing policy and that the focus is placed instead on strategy or other superficialities. You will have to excuse me for making this same mistake. However, I am not entirely sure this explains the outcome of this particular election.

McCain/Palin ran on a platform of openly acknowledged policy disasters. All of them protecting the privileges of a very small minority of americans while ensuring disaster to most. The popular vote was still very close. The people who voted for McCain were not, at least consciously, thirsting for more rigorous policy debate. If anything, Obama's relatively lightweight detours into policy were labeled as lofty, effete, and ethereal. Or just boring. And to suppose they did subconsciously desire anything else is called elitist. If we are to believe what pundits say about the attitudes of average americans, anyways. But we don't have to ask the pundits, look at the numbers. 46% of the electorate agreed. They might not agree with or even know all of Senator McCain's positions, but they consented. What are we to make of that?

Well, I have one or two ideas.

They are stupid and they need to be tricked. The republicans tricked them for thirty years in one direction and we need to trick them long enough in the other until they can figure it out themselves. One could argue that relying on debate that insults the intelligence of the nation is hardly destined to enlighten anyone, but I am afraid that just might be how peaceful reform operates. Refocus the national attention, use tiny words, explain as little as possible. Point them in the right direction. Congratulate them often. Always let them believe it was their idea. And watch them pat themselves on the back as they float happily through the river of time, unconscious of the weeds and rocks ahead of them, amazed at their forward progress. When the time comes, we can expect that some enlightened person standing on shore will find them should they wash up against the rocks, and have the patience to kick them downstream. And we can judge if it was patience or just gullibility depending on if they themselves get soaked.

The alternative is speaking to people as if their brains worked the same way yours did. To shock the ignorant by speaking to them plainly and sincerely, defending progressive policies and advocating their uncompromised victory. Pulling survivors from the river of time. Building new cities on rock of reason. Mourning the dead. Loving the living. Choosing honesty. Choosing heroism. Getting soaked.

This dichotomy itself is the one wedge issue that has washed the Left upon the rocks. It discounts work, and the ability to honestly convince another of the right thing. I suppose the question I have been asking myself in this long meandering mess is: what is the value of strategy? This is an open question. It seems very non-radical to just accept that it is complicated, and that is that. However, I have personally seen the power of radical interaction and transformation. How does a radical act as president of a democratic nation with a center-right political culture? Given things as they are, and not how we might like them to be, how would we move to change political power from the top if given the chance? Perhaps it is the duty of power to be clever, and of the powerless, to be bold.

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