On Activism, Voting and Responsibility

(Revised and extended version of a talk delivered to Staten Island Peace Action on Sept. 29, 2018. Many thanks to Dan Falcone, Delfina Vannucci, and Richard Singer for inviting Brittany de Barros and me to address the group, and to the members of Peace Action for an excellent discussion.)

As most of us know, the history of left politics has had its share of sharp, even profound disagreements.

Sometimes these have been about the kind of society we want to achieve.  But often the arguments have been between allies who share the same goals but who are divided about strategy and tactics.  What follows will be in the latter category and I will issue a warning that I’m going to take a side and try to show why I believe the other side is wrong. I anticipate some pushback.  If I get it, that’s good thing in that people caring enough to argue is an indication (one of many) that the movement is reaching critical mass which I believe it is-something I’ll briefly discuss at the end.  It’s also a good thing because, the glib one liner aside, we usually get into arguments not because the stakes are low but because they’re high as they surely are in this instance.

That’s because our making the wrong decisions as to how we direct our energies will mean that we will lose as we have too often in the past. With that in mind I want to say a few things about the past, namely the movement as it was when I first became politically aware during the peak of anti-war activism in the late sixties and seventies.

What is hard to convey to those who didn’t experience it is that the peace movement was a mass movement that extended well beyond the familiar pool of outsiders, students, and radicals who, for reasons of temperament or background, are predisposed to protest.  Its ranks included, as I recall well from the groups my parents participated in, plumbers to academics to taxi drivers to Catholic priests as well as what were called suburban housewives then and soccer moms now.

All that makes it all the more remarkable that within a few years, the movement had more or less collapsed. While the causes of its demise were complex and multifaceted, among the most significant were self-inflicted when a faction of the movement made the decision to, in their words, “bring the war home.” Their objective, according to them, was to

shove the war down their dumb, fascist throats and show them, while we were at it, how much better we were than them, both tactically and strategically, as a people. In an all-out civil war over Vietnam and other fascist U.S. imperialism, we were going to  ‘Turn the imperialists’ war into a civil war’, in Lenin’s words. And we were going to kick ass.

Those with memories of the time will recall these sorts of reactions as reflecting the bitter frustrations felt by many at having exhausted all legal electoral and non-electoral means to effect change.

While the reaction was understandable it is now clear that it was a tragic mistake to assume that ending the assault on the people of South East Asia involved waging a “civil war”.  Among those who recognized this immediately were those who might have been thought to have been most supportive, namely the Vietnamese themselves who, “pleaded with them to stop, understanding very well that each such act simply increased support for the war.”  We know this from Noam Chomsky who attempted convey their pleas to anyone who would listen in the movement at the time-to relatively little effect as he recalls.

Chomsky also reports that the Vietnamese understood what activists did not, namely that each “direct action” would coincide not with a reduction but with an intensification of our genocidal conduct. And while those planting the bombs found their actions cathartic, the costs would be borne not by them but by the Vietnamese in the form of napalm, cluster bombs and atrocities like the My Lai massacre which took place while the administration pointed to the “criminal” tactics of the domestic opposition.  What induced the administration to reduce its savagery were, the Vietnamese recognized, the mildest possible protest tactics. Chomsky recalls the Vietnamese referencing “groups of mothers praying at the graves of US soldiers killed in action.” These, they recognized, engaged the largest numbers and turned the spotlight from the protests to the atrocities the protests were directed against, to the immediate benefit of those in the line of fire, namely, the Vietnamese themselves.

Just as significant was the effect of direct action tactics on the movement itself. That only a minority were willing to commit to them was almost immediately reflected in the membership of the SDS (the Students for a Democratic Society) which would be reduced to fraction of its prior numbers when the ultra left Weather faction took over leadership.  The public repudiation of the anti-war movement’s tactics would be exploited by the law and order campaign of Nixon who would obliterate the anti-war candidate McGovern. Perhaps the most significant and tragic result was that left politics would be discredited within the Democratic Party for a generation-providing the soil from which the mutant strain of neoliberalism grew, most conspicuously in the form of the Carter, Clinton, and Obama presidencies.

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With that history in mind, I’ll turn to tactics and strategy relevant to the present, specifically as these have to do with our participation in electoral politics. The two forms of politics, bombing weapons research centers and financial institutions versus what we do in a voting booth might seem to have little to do with one another. That there is a basic similarity should be apparent, especially to those of us who recall the anti-war movement five decades ago.

Specifically, the forms of resistance we engage in should have at their core the recognition that “not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.”  Just as the Weather Underground’s calculations did not include the consequences of their actions for the Vietnamese, neither did elements of the left consider the likely consequences of a failure to act to defeat Trump.  It was apparent to any informed person that the Trump presidency would be an unparalleled disaster to the most vulnerable in the ways it has turned out to me.  Insofar as one’s vote could have marginally decreased its likelihood it seemed elementary common sense to exercise it.

But what became apparent was how many refused to look at it in those terms: for them our choice to pull a lever constituted a sacrament, just as our civics textbooks told us, and our elected leaders wanted us to believe. Voting was not something that you did-it reflected deeply on who you were–a reflection of one’s underlying moral character.

Thus, for example, along these lines, Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi claimed to speak for “millions of Sanders voters,” who regarded Chomsky’s views as “morally obtuse“ as “it is immoral to vote for a corrupt warmonger who is partially responsible for a pernicious war that has destroyed the entire nation.” For David Swanson those voting for Clinton (even in swing states) were “poison(ing) political activity every day of every year.” Or, as Chris Hedges put it, voting for Clinton “paves the way to the greater evil. It’s not in opposition to it. It makes way for it.”

Similarly Jill Stein accused Chomsky of “cowardice” while praising the “courage” of her supporters, a courage similar to the Weather faction in that the consequences of a Trump victory were most directly experienced by those very far away from those tiny enclaves where Greens had established strongholds.  (I say this as a  former Green office holder, incidentally.)

In a more detached vein, Jacobin ran at least two pieces taking the line of seventy four members of the Democratic Socialists of America that the left “was under no obligation” to prevent a Trump administration.

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A common feature of these pieces was their almost complete avoidance of the issue at hand, namely the likely effects of a Trump presidency on the most vulnerable. The inability to face this naked truth required them to argue on not on factual but on moralistic grounds.

That said, a few avoid moralism by arguing strategy and tactics, e.g. that a loss would force the Democrats to reverse their rightward drift. But elections going back decades have shown that the Democrats can be certain to respond in the exact opposite direction-by doubling down on triangulatory neoliberalism. And even here the moralistic tone (“to punish” the Democrats) was conspicuous.

This provides some idea of the extent of the rejection of our position-numbers which, according to Dabashi, amounted to “millions”.  Frankly, I doubt whether this was the fact of the matter.  But the remark highlights a significant unresolved contradiction in the Never Hillary/Bernie or Bust position: on the one hand they  claim that they speak for millions.  But when it is pointed out to them that their actions could have a decisive influence, they are quick to disclaim responsibility, taking refuge in the assurance that they represent only a small minority.

The closest to what might be called support of our position came from those who recognized that it might be necessary to “hold our noses and vote for Clinton.” Of course, we understood what was intended by the phrase, but even that description brought the choice of voting into the personalized, affective realm, as a torturous Sophie’s choice rather than the routine exercise in electoral hygiene it should be.

Furthermore, in a literal sense, the description is inaccurate in that it doesn’t conform to our actual experience: no one flees retching from the booth and to claim otherwise is disingenuous and melodramatic. While superficially radical, it is deeply conservative, even reactionary, in that it assumes the establishment narrative of voting as a sacrament of our democracy, albeit one which has been defiled by unnamed conspiratorial forces working in the shadows.

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That said, we would agree that some element of disgust should accompany our participation in what Chomsky calls “quadrennial (or biennial or annual) electoral extravaganzas” when we recognize that yet again, we are choosing not the best of good options but the least bad of the worst.  But who is to blame for that?  Yes, a political system controlled by the highest bidders.  But why have we been so unable to confront it?  And here our disgust should be directed not at the candidates we encounter on the ballot but at ourselves, our complete inability to organize effectively against the 1% using the electoral system to prosecute their war against the 99%.

In particular, we should recall the 2008 presidential election where the Democratic primary devolved to two unabashed neoliberals, both lavishly supported by the same elite financial interests,

But those of us involved in it will recall that there was little disgust.  Rather it was with abject enthusiasm that the left flocked to the polls in 2008 to elect the first African American President-an historic achievement which we richly congratulated ourselves for having brought about.  Adolph Reed’s iconic description that they were voting for “a smooth talking Harvard lawyer, with vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics”, fell on deaf ears.  And when it turned out that in short order the new boss was nothing other than the next in a sequence of corporate Democrats ready, willing and able to sell out his key constituencies, as he proceeded to do, the left was notably missing in action, delaying for years protests which should have begun the moment he announced, in consultation with his Wall Street brain trust, his cabinet appointments.

In short, 2008 is when we should have felt disgusted, but not enough of us did. And with that in mind, it is easy to see that 2016 was something like the reverse: many of us were disgusted, and were more than willing to let everyone know they were. But we shouldn’t have been. Or at most, we should have been much less disgusted than usual.  For unlike all presidential elections of my lifetime, there was a real possibility that the political system would produce a candidate able to achieve a greater good, not merely head off a great evil.  Voting in 2016 should have been informed by the awareness that the 2016 Sanders campaign accomplished something entirely unprecedented in breaking what political scientist Thomas Ferguson defined as the golden rule of politics.  Until Sanders it appeared that corporate elites would buy elections in perpetuity. But in 2016, billion dollar war chests were no longer an asset but a liability.  With a few more union endorsements and worse organizational mistakes from the Democratic establishment in their effort to “rig the election” (as Senator Warren described it) we would now have a Democratic Socialist administration.

Our vote for Clinton should have been cast as a holding action, with the awareness of possibilities which lay ahead: under a Clinton administration, the opposition movement would gets its footing through protests against the inevitable neoliberal capitulations, but more significantly through the recruitment of candidates drawn from the ranks of the Sanders insurgency competing in the primaries of 2018 and 2020.

The result was, of course, that we are now fighting incipient fascism-not Clintonite neoliberalism.  But while a huge setback, the basic outlines of our strategy to build the movement remain intact.

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That the Sanders campaign was part of a movement was by no means accepted across the board on the left. In particular, Chris Hedges referred to it as a “so-called movement,” asserting that the “political revolution will evaporate” with Sanders’s “mobilized base . . . fossilized into donor and volunteer lists.”  “The curtain will come down,” Hedges predicted “with a thunderclap until the next election carnival.”

By this point, it is obvious that with the extraordinary wins of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and many others, not only has the curtain not gone down, the show is just beginning.

Furthermore, while there are names associated with these victories that is somewhat misleading in that they confirm precisely that which Hedges denies.  They were not victories for individual candidates but for the movement which recruited, campaigned for and celebrated with them.

Among those who have stressed this point is Ocasio-Cortez herself who during her debate with the incumbent Democrat Joseph Crowley announced that her decision to endorse the Democratic nominee was not hers alone but would be arrived at in consultation with the activist organizations that supported her candidacy.

The re-emergence of movement candidates deeply connected with and recruited from the ranks of activist movements is one of many ways in which the Sanders mobilization recalls my introduction to political activism during the anti-war movement in the late sixties and seventies, as I have written about here.

But this awareness also informs two concerns.  First, if we expect candidates to stand for us, we must show that we are able and willing to stand behind them. The reflexive anti-electoralism of much of the left, based on slogans such as John Holloway’s “change the world without taking power” and “if the people will lead, the leaders will follow” has long since outlived its usefulness. We should by now have enough experience with leaders doing the exact opposite of what these slogans predict to know how seriously we need to take competing for and winning control of governmental institutions.(1) Our failure to do so created a void, one which, over the decades, the neoliberal center and neofascist right have been glad to occupy.

Secondly, we need to recognize that a movement is defined not only by its goals, but also by a shared recognition as to how they are to be prioritized.

As mentioned above, the anti-war movement was unified around a single demand: the immediate withdrawal of the troops and the U.S. military from South East Asia.  That’s not to say the movement was only about that.  In particular, almost all involved would have signed with Dr. King’s effort to overcome the “triple evils” of militarism, racism and economic exploitation.   But at the same time, it was understood that the path to broader progressive goals lay through showing that we could first end the madness of sending our own children half a world away to die devastating a defenseless peasant society. If we couldn’t achieve that, it was hard to imagine sanity in any other realm of policy.

The triple evils would also unify the current movement, and its leading figures would almost certainly endorse them.  The difference between now and then would be in the order of priorities.  In particular, with many of the gains achieved by the New Deal coalition are now under attack and decades of fiscal austerity cutting into the bone of a previously stable middle class, economic exploitation has become again central with Medicare for All, the $15 minimum wage and expanded Social Security benefits the defining policies of the movement.

This raises the question for activists connected to groups which prioritize their concerns differently.  How should, for example, antiwar activists, react?  How willing should they be to enter into coalition with a movement which does not place stopping military aggression at center stage?

What they should consider, in my opinion, is that political goals have rarely been achieved in the past via a straight line.   For example, the civil war was not fought to end slavery.  But abolitionists enlisted in the union army recognizing that that would be its indirect consequence.  Similarly, many African Americans enlisted in a segregated army with the expectation that their service would result in a “double victory” over the fascists and Jim Crow which they did achieve in part through the integration of the military under Truman.

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Bringing this into the present, the stated policies of the Sanders mobilization do not speak equally forcefully to all aspects of a left agenda.  For example, Ocasio-Cortez’s foreign policy views have not radically broken with the Washington consensus.  That said, anti-war activists would be foolish not to support a candidate who has questioned why “We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do but when it comes to   . .  when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money very easily.”

And while some Palestinians will not find Sanders’s views on Palestinian statehood satisfactory, it would be a serious mistake for them not to work to achieve a president who has declared himself “no friend of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Finally, while Ocasio has offered an impressively comprehensive plan for combatting global warming, some climate change activists might find her failure to devote her primary focus to economic injustice troubling.  But it would be a catastrophic mistake for them to fail to understand that Ocasio is offering the key to the transformation to a renewable economy by taking on the system through which private corporations derive profit from destroying the planet’s capacity to support life.

Recovering a minimally decent standard of living for those who work for a living here while securing the survival of our species on the planet will require actions on an unprecedented scale.  These will not be undertaken by the 1% which by now have achieved a nearly exclusive grip on government and its institutions.  In fact, they will be the main obstacles to achieving them.

Extracting them from power will require a coalition based on whatever solidarity the 99% are able to muster after many years of factionalization, disorganization and failure. While only a fool would be optimistic given the colossal scale of the crises which confront us, the campaigns which the Sanders campaign have spawned would appear to provide the kind of unity which is necessary for us to finally begin to move forward.

(1) Most notably, the two million of us on the streets of Manhattan on Feb. 15, 2003 thought we were “the people leading.”  But the “leaders”, including New York Senators Schumer and Clinton didn’t follow; they ran in the opposite direction by signing off on the AUMF.  See here for other examples.

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3 thoughts on “On Activism, Voting and Responsibility”

  1. I strongly agree with your views on leftist failings, but perhaps an addendum with respect to incrementalism versus revolution is in order. I believe great patience is needed so that a solidarity that is actually worthy of that description can build. So, I am disinclined to calls for revolution even in the face of mounting evidence of barbaric fascism. The Reign of Terror in 18th century France is not very far off from the evil of genocide.

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