A Dynamic Left and the Dilemma of Electoral Politics

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Common Dreams

A Dynamic Left and the Dilemma of Electoral Politics

The dangers posed by climate change and potential shifts in the ocean conveyor system; the extensive suffering generated by the heightening of economic inequality; the need to restructure the state supported infrastructure of consumption so that all residents can participate in the housing, travel, health care, retirement and educational institutions it makes available; the need to support the pluralization of gender practices, religious membership, and ethnic identifications; the desperate needs of our cities and the ugly politics of apartheid designed to isolate them---these interlocking issues constitute commanding problems of our time. The fact is, however, that they are not addressed within the established terms of the electoral system.  Does that mean that we should withdraw from electoral politics? Or wait for a revolution that eschews “reformist” politics until capitalism is liquidated, as some critics of the Occupy movement have asserted? I know too many people suffering in the working class to sanction either response. I read about too many others under duress as well.

There is, nonetheless, a dilemma of electoral politics confronting the Left: 1) It is tempting to forgo electoral politics because it is so dysfunctional. But to do so cedes even more power both to independent corporate action and to the radical right within the state. The right loves to make electoral politics dysfunctional so that people lose confidence in it and transfer confidence to the private sector. (2) Nonetheless, the logic of the media-electoral-corporate system does spawn a restrictive grid of power and electoral intelligibility that makes it difficult to think, experiment, and organize outside its parameters. Think of how corporations and financial institutions initiate actions in the private sector and then use intensive lobbying to veto efforts to reverse those initiatives in Congress or the courts, just as financial elites invented derivatives and then lobbied intensively to stop their regulation; think of how media talking heads concentrate on candidates rather than fundamental issues; recall the central role of scandal in the media and electoral politics; consider the decisive electoral position of inattentive “undecided voters”; note how states under Republican rule work relentlessly to reduce the minority and poor vote; recall those billionaire super pacs; and so on. The electoral grid cannot be ignored or ceded to the right, but it also sucks experimental pursuits and bold ventures out of politics. Can we renegotiate the dilemma of electoral politics? That is the problematic within which I am working. I do not have a perfect response to it. Perfect answers are suspect.

Perhaps it is wise to forge multimodal strategies that start outside the electoral grid and then return to it as one venue among others. Strategic role experimentations at multiple sites joined to the activation of new social movements provide possibilities. Indeed, these two modes are related. Consider merely a few examples of role experimentation tied to climate change and consumption available to many people in the shrinking middle class. We may support the farm-to-table movement in the restaurants we visit; we may participate in the slow food movement; we may frequent stores that offer food based on sustainable processes; we may buy hybrid cars, or, if feasible, join an urban zip-car collective, explaining to friends, family, and neighbors the effects such choices could have on late modern ecology if a majority of the populace did so; we may press our workplace to install solar panels and consider them ourselves if we can afford to do so; we may use writing and media skills to write graffiti, or produce provocative artistic installations, or write for a blog; we may shift a large portion of our retirement accounts into investments that support sustainable energy, withdrawing from aggressive investments that presuppose unsustainable growth or threaten economic collapse; we may bring new issues and visitors to our churches, temples, or mosques to support rethinking interdenominational issues and the contemporary fragility of things; we may found, join, or frequent repair clubs, at which volunteers collect and repair old appliances, furniture, and bikes to cut back on urban waste, to make them available to low income people and to increase the longevity of the items; we may probe and publicize the multimodal tactics by which twenty-four-hour news stations work on the visceral register of viewers, as we explain on blogs how to counter those techniques; we may travel to places where unconscious American assumptions about world entitlement are challenged on a regular basis; we may augment the pattern of films and artistic exhibits we visit to stretch our habitual powers of perception and to challenge some affect-imbued prejudgments embedded in them. A series of intercalated role experiments, often pursued by clusters of participants together.

The most recent economic melt-down was met in many places by the self-defeating response of austerity, and worse. That is why the quality and depth of the political ethos preceding such events is important.

But don’t such activities merely make the participants “feel better”?  Well, many who pursue such experiments do feel good about them, particularly those who accept a tragic image of possibility in which there is no inevitability that either large scale politics, God, or nature will come to our rescue. Also, could such role experiments ever make a sufficient difference on their own? No. These, however, may be the wrong questions to pose. What such experiments can do as they expand is to crack the ice in and around us.

First, we may now find ourselves a bit less implicated in the practices and policies that are sources of the problems. Second, the shaky perceptions, feelings, and beliefs that authorized them may thus now become more entrenched as we act upon them. Third, we now find ourselves in more favorable positions to forge connections with larger constituencies pursuing similar experiments. Fourth, we may thus become more inspired to seed and join macropolitical movements that speak to these issues. Fifth, as we now participate in protests, slowdowns, work “according to rule” and more confrontational meetings with corporate managers, church leaders, union officials, university officers, and neighborhood leaders, we may become even more alert to the creeds, institutional pressures and options that propel these constituencies too. They, too, are both enmeshed in a web of roles and more than mere role bearers. Many will maintain an intransigence of viewpoint and insistence of interpretation that we may now be in a better position to counter by words and deeds with those outside or at the edge of the intransigent community. But don’t such activities merely make the participants “feel better”?  Well, many who pursue such experiments do feel good about them, particularly those who accept a tragic image of possibility in which there is no inevitability that either large scale politics, God, or nature will come to our rescue.

Also, could such role experiments ever make a sufficient difference on their own? No. These, however, may be the wrong questions to pose. What such experiments can do as they expand is to crack the ice in and around us. First, we may now find ourselves a bit less implicated in the practices and policies that are sources of the problems. Second, the shaky perceptions, feelings, and beliefs that authorized them may thus now become more entrenched as we act upon them. Third, we now find ourselves in more favorable positions to forge connections with larger constituencies pursuing similar experiments. Fourth, we may thus become more inspired to seed and join macropolitical movements that speak to these issues. Fifth, as we now participate in protests, slowdowns, work “according to rule” and more confrontational meetings with corporate managers, church leaders, union officials, university officers, and neighborhood leaders, we may become even more alert to the creeds, institutional pressures and options that propel these constituencies too. They, too, are both enmeshed in a web of roles and more than mere role bearers. Many will maintain an intransigence of viewpoint and insistence of interpretation that we may now be in a better position to counter by words and deeds with those outside or at the edge of the intransigent community.

One advantage of forging links between role experimentations and social movements is that both speak to a time in which the drive to significant change must be pursued by a large, pluralist assemblage rather than by any single class or other core constituency. Such an assemblage must today be primed and loaded by several constituencies in diverse ways at numerous sites.

It is necessary here to condense linkages that may unfold. But perhaps movement back and forth between role experiments, social movements, occasional shifts in the priorities of some strategic institutions, and a discernible shift in the contours of electoral politics will promote the emergence of a new, more activist pluralist assemblage. Now, say, a new, surprising event occurs. Some such event or crisis is surely bound to erupt: an urban uprising, a destructive storm, a wild executive overreach, a wide spread interruption in electrical service, a bank melt down, a crisis in oil supply, etc. Perhaps the conjunction of this new event with the preparatory actions that preceded it will prime a large constellation to resist the protofascist responses the intransigent Right will pursue at that very moment.  Perhaps the event will now become an occasion to mobilize large scale, intensive support for progressive change on some of the fronts noted at the start of this piece. It is important to remember that the advent of a crisis does not alone determine the response to it. So waiting for the next one to occur is not enough. The Great Depression was followed by the intensification of fascist movements in several countries. Those with strong labor movements and progressive elected leaders proved best at resisting them. The most recent economic melt-down was met in many places by the self-defeating response of austerity, and worse. That is why the quality and depth of the political ethos preceding such events is important.

The use of the “perhaps” in the above formulations suggests that there are no guarantees at any of these junctures. Uncertainties abound. These points, however, also apply to any radical perspective that counsels waiting for the revolution, as it surrounds its critiques of militant reform with an aura of certainty. Today the need is to curtail the aura of certainty of all perspectives on the Left. The examples posed here, of course, are focused on primarily one constituency. But others could be invoked. The larger idea is to draw energy from multiple sources and constituencies.  The formula is to move back and forth between the proliferation of role experiments, forging social movements on several fronts, helping to shift the constituency weight of the heavy electoral machinery now in place, and participating in cross-country citizen movements that put pressure on states, corporations, churches, universities and unions from inside and outside simultaneously. Indeed, perhaps the severity of the issues facing us means that we should prepare for the day when we are strong enough in several countries to launch a cross-country general strike.  

The proliferating approach adopted here, again, is replete with uncertain connections. That’s politics. The point is to resist falling into the familiar game of optimism vs. pessimism and to minimize that tempting blame-game within the Left, folding more attraction and inspiration into our activities. The point is to appraise the severity of the needs of the day and to attract people to join in different ways and degrees a multifaceted movement to respond to them.

William E. Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism. He is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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