By this fall, the two major political parties in the United States will have spent around $10bn this election cycle to persuade an increasingly skeptical US public that there is more than just a stylistic difference between a Republican and a Democrat. Naturally, this campaign will focus primarily on the superficial (is Mitt Romney too weird to be president? Is Barack Obama too cool? And who loves America/Israel more?), as maintaining the facade of electoral choice requires obscuring the broad areas of bipartisan agreement: bailouts for the rich, prisons for the poor, and drone strikes for the poor and foreign.
And some still dare to call it democracy.
While partisans on both sides claim that the coming election is the most important ever, the truth is that for most in the US, and certainly for most outside it, what happens this November will be as consequential as who wins the World Series. Sure, one team's fans will be happy, for a time, but yesterday's champions soon become tomorrow's overpaid stiffs. But with the game played in Washington, those watching from the cheap seats risk losing more than $8 on a watery beer - they risk losing their homes to a foreclosure or Hellfire missile.
Almost four years after hopes of change were once again dashed by excuses for continuity, it's hard to deny the stacked reality of electoral politics. It doesn't much matter which party or candidate you bet on, the house always seems to win - for the simple reason that everyone's on the house's payroll.
Done with 'democracy'
The sorry state of US democracy has caused many here to write off electoral politics as a waste of time and energy. For some, this has manifested itself in apathy, but increasingly direct action and the boycott are taking the place of the ballot box. Since their politicians have failed them, activists around the country are now helping block dozens of foreclosures, sending a message to capital that it can't seize the commons without a fight. But so long as state power is a thing to be reckoned with, those desirous of radical social change ought to exert at least some energy trying to capture that power for the people.
"When Democrats run, they talk liberal, they talk populist, and as soon as they get elected they govern for the elites," says Jeff Cohen, a long time left-wing activist and founder of the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Rather than challenge the Democrats' corporate, pro-war agenda, Cohen charges traditional left-wing constituencies with capitulating to that agenda in the name of being a lesser evil. The logic goes that so long as there's some Republican, somewhere, saying something terrible, any terrible Democrat can count on labor unions, environmental groups and MoveOn.org turning out the vote come election day.
What if they didn't?
"Those are the groups that have the power to change the Democratic Party and the country," Cohen argues. Rather than serving as the useful idiots of corporate Democrats: "If there were movements ready to primary such elected officials and you beat one or two of them, that sends a strong shockwave through the rest of them."
That's easier said than done. With the help of gerrymandered districts and the sway of financial interests and military contractors, a good lobbyist-approved politician is more liable to publicly denounce motherhood and Jesus than they are to lose an election. Even in an electoral wipe-out, there's a better than eight in ten chance one's congressman will keep their job. And there's a smaller chance that one will even get the opportunity to vote for a candidate running on a platform of peace and social justice, much less one from a major party; even fewer will have the opportunity to support a candidate who follows through on that platform.
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"Chances for a left-wing insurgency within the Democratic Party at this point are very slight," says Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and libertarian socialist. But, he adds, "that's no reason not to try". Though the focus of the radical ought to be on changing the culture that enables power - the necessary direct action and education that set the stage for a social revolution - voting for reform-minded candidates "should take about five minutes, and then we go back to the important work on the ground to change the conditions in which the mostly farcical election process proceeds".
That was the thinking behind the campaign to elect Norman Solomon, a prominent anti-war activist and author running to replace retiring California Congresswoman Lynne Woolsey, one of the more progressive members of Congress. Cohen, a long-time friend of Solomon, says the campaign was launched with the intention of signaling to the Democratic Party that leftists would no longer be content simply caving to its corporate leadership - that they were there seeking to "empower these social movements and these mass groups of people that object to US corporatism", not exploit them on behalf of corporate Democrats.
"I'm talking about representing these social movements and taking over," says Cohen. And that, he argues, requires taking over one of the major parties, as "you have to deal with the political system you have".
In the narrow terms of electoral politics, that may very well be true. Of course, trying to take over one of the corporate parties comes with its own set of problems, the most problematic being that one is fighting on capital's turf, where the money one raises is a lot more important than the values one holds. Indeed, you don't get far in Washington - or even get to Washington - clinging to tedious principles like "murder is bad" or eccentric notions about empty, soul-crushing consumerism not being the sole purpose for one's existence on this planet we call Earth. In the US political arena, it's about the money, not the morality.
Solomon found that out in one of the most left-leaning districts in the country. Despite years of preparation and endorsements from prominent leftists such as Chomsky and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Solomon finished third in the June 5 primary. Behind a Republican. Despite doing his best to be a good party Democrat - his campaign told me Solomon was a "strong and steadfast supporter" of the president - he was crushed by the party establishment's preferred empty suit.
Perhaps that's for the best.
"Good men," as Emma Goldman once observed, "if they should be so fortunate as to make it into the halls of power, would either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good." Indeed, politics leave no alternative.
But even the rogues often prove not to be rogues for long. Senator John Kerry, for instance, went from being one of the country's most outspoken anti-war activists to one of the Senate's most reliable militarists, backing every major war in the past 20 years. Dennis Kucinich, good ol' Dennis Kucinich, backed a health insurance mandate he one week earlier pledged to oppose, not because he changed his mind on its merits, but because he claimed he had a "higher responsibility" to "my president and his presidency". Barack Obama, the guy he pledged his devotion to - well, we know his story.
In a statement conceding his defeat, Solomon pledged to continue his fight to "overcome a status quo of perpetual war, extreme Wall Street power, chronic inequities and environmental degradation". Given the enormity of the task, it's probably best that he continue that fight outside the halls of Congress, where the real power lies: in the hands of the people. The difficult task lies in convincing the people they have it.