Obama, the left, and the two-party system
~by Shawn Gude
Freddie deBoer had a good post recently bemoaning Obama’s illiberal tendencies. You should read the whole thing, but this passage touches on something I’ve been thinking about lately:
Not a day goes by where I argue politics online without some Obama supporter hurling invective at me and insisting that I have no choice, that if I refuse to vote for Obama I am in essence voting for Michelle Bachmann [sic], that it’s a two party system and I should just take it and like it, or, most absurdly, that he secretly is pursuing my agenda and I’m just too stupid to read the tea leaves and SEE. (Andrew Sullivan’s "meep meep" thing has become the rallying cry of daydream believin’ Kool-Aid drinkers everywhere.)
This takes me back to Nader-Gore-Bush circa 2000, when Nader was excoriated by partisan Democrats for "stealing" the election from Gore and derisively labeled a "spoiler." The longtime consumer advocate—and erstwhile liberal hero—was subsequently blamed for a litany of Bush excesses and, in the process, Democratic politicos were let off the hook for backing the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. It wasn’t these "pragmatists"—who had served as docile enablers—who should be upbraided, but the leftists and liberals who supported Nader.
I’ll admit it: I’m still sore about how Eric Alterman and other partisan ciphers treated Nader, one of the most principled, indefatigable champions of liberal and small-d democratic causes in the last half-century. It was repugnant tribalism and a low point for the Democratic establishment. Lingering vexation aside, though, the pillorying of Nader is a useful case study for how centrists and partisans—in this case, Obama devotees—shouldn’t act toward those who flank them from the left.
Just as the left should recognize how closely its success is tied to the vibrancy of the center-left, the future viability of the center-left project is contingent on the left’s ability to shift the center, to transmute and transform the present paradigm; dispense with the acrimony and embrace the symbiosis. (Read Ta-Nehisi Coates for his perceptive take.)
So how will this play out in 2012? It’s not looking good. I’d be astonished if the election isn’t marked by Obama acolytes telling the disgruntled left to genuflect or go to hell (but still vote for Obama, mind you). Here’s Glenn Greenwald on what us on the left should expect:
"In other words: it makes no difference to us how much we stomp on liberals’ beliefs or how much they squawk, because we’ll just wave around enough pictures of Michele Bachmann and scare them into unconditional submission. That’s the Democratic Party’s core calculation: from "hope" in 2008 to a rank fear-mongering campaign in 2012. Will it work? The ones who will determine if it will are the intended victims of that tactic: angry, impotent liberals whom the White House expects will snap dutifully into line no matter what else happens (even, as seems likely, massive Social Security and Medicare cuts) between now and next November."
Look, I’m an idealist. I have to be, or I’d already find myself despondent and jaundiced, a political eunuch. (Saul Alinsky’s quote about fanning "the embers of hopelessness into a flame to fight" is apropos.)
For a leftist like myself, one must be realistic without resigning oneself to realpolitik. In this context that amounts to acknowledgment of a few things: The United States has a two-party system largely for incorrigible, institutional reasons. Even non-institutional factors—media attention, money, automatic ballot-access—give major parties an enormous leg up. Third-party presidential candidacies are often forlorn affairs.
None of this should make us all run to the nearest milquetoast major-party candidate, though, desperate for political relevancy. First-past-the-post system or not, we live in a democracy (or, to be more specific, a representative democracy—and a rather emaciated one at that). At its core our system of government should be an affirmation of the primacy of citizens over politicians; unwavering devotion to a given candidate is anathema the democratic ethos that should pervade the polity.
The point I’m making should, I think, be noncontroversial. But the noxiousness and ubiquity of vacuous partisanship is such that it’s worth amplifying: Obama—or Gore, or Bush, or any other politician—has to earn the votes of different constituencies and ideological cohorts. If Obama’s record is an affront to liberal values, if he has deviated and triangulated his way to the center-right, if he has failed to advancing a reasonably left-wing agenda, then the left has every right to reconsider its support. This is the stuff of electoral politics.
The left doesn’t owe the Democratic Party anything. The left doesn’t owe Obama anything. The left doesn’t owe any politician anything.
Rhetoric that suggests otherwise is both condescending and vaguely authoritarian.