What if the worst has already happened?

bushandputin1

A lot of people are rightly panicking about the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am one of them, more often than not. In this discourse, Trump is an absolute evil that must be stopped no matter what the cost, even if that means holding your nose and voting for Hillary Clinton — or, at the most extreme, even doing the unthinkable and supporting Rubio. Anything to stave off the very worst.

What if the very worst already happened, though? What if the very worst was George W. Bush? Read the rest of this entry »

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

Against strategic primary voting

I’ll vote for literally any Democrat in the general election, up to and including Satan himself or even Rahm Emanuel. But I just don’t see the benefit of “strategically” voting for a candidate I disagree with in the primary, due to some belief in “electability.” That is a purely speculative property. I don’t have the information necessary to decide that, and maybe no one does. Barack Obama sure seemed unelectable for a lot of common-sense reasons, but lo and behold, he actually got elected.

In any case I don’t trust the people who are trying to convince me of their personal theories of “electability.” Too much American political discourse takes place in those weird speculative meta-levels, where we’re supposed to choose the person we think other people will choose, or the person who will protect us from someone else. Every living American adult should be aware of the blackmail involved in the latter — and should be familiar with the disappointing results. Saving us from the worst looks an awful lot like the worst itself sometimes.

And again, we do not and cannot know for sure whether someone will actually win the election or protect us against the worst. What we do know for sure is each candidate’s policy proposals, and I think we should vote based on what we know instead of on our hunches about what other people (whose political preferences we don’t share or really understand) will think about the candidate at some future date.

The presidential candidate isn’t just a presidential candidate — they’re the leader of the party, who sets the agenda. Voting in the primary means voting on the direction of the party. If the Democratic Party is going to ask our opinion on that, we should give it to them sincerely, instead of psyching ourselves out through some ill-conceived 11-dimensional chess.

On circular firing squads

It is often observed that the left forms circular firing squads — incidents where internecine struggle does serious damage to the cause. When this issue comes up, the point is most frequently to blame some other individual or group for starting a circular firing squad. This view of the situation seems to presuppose that people just up and decide to form circular firing squads and could stop doing so simply by up and deciding not to.

Less frequent are analyses of the structural roots of the circular firing squad phenomenon. And it is a structural rather than personal issue. An honest appraisal of the history of radical politics in the modern world will indicate that the threat of a circular firing squad has always been in the air — from the Terror that arose in the wake of the French Revolution, up to the various “purges” that have been endemic in Communist regimes. From a certain perspective, of course, there is little ground for comparison between mass deportation to Gulags and blocking each other on Twitter, but it is not sheerly coincidental that people reach for the imagery of “purges” in the latter incidents.

In The Structure of World History, Karatani tries to account for this eternal recurrence of the purge. Essentially he claims that it stems from the attempt to carry out a radical revolution “in one country.” Read the rest of this entry »

Is Critique of Israeli State Violence Inherently Anti-Semitic?

The Pope recently spoke with Jewish leaders and affirmed that critique of the State of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. He also affirmed the commonly uttered opinion that Israel has a right to exist. Unfortunately, such talking points are common ways to shut off any critique that the state of Israel is violently occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people.

Far from being just misinformed, the Pope’s talking points are more strategic. By claiming an argument is inherently anti-Semitic, one can close off any critique of Israeli state violence. There is no doubt the state of Israel has and continues to commit violence against the Palestinian people. By saying all critique of Israeli state violence is anti-Semitic, the supporters of the state of Israel do not have to address the claim that they support either intentionally or unintentionally the systematic oppression of a group of people. The argument intentionally obscures because to admit that the state of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people might mean that one can no longer justify the actions of Israel. Although making the claim that critics of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic sometimes has basis in truth (see David Duke), it is more strategic in most cases. Similarly, the appeal to Israel’s right to exist is strategic.

What is ignored in the claim that “Israel has a right to exist” is the lack of an equivalent appeal to the right of the Palestinian people’s right to exist. It is difficult to imagine this omission as unintentional. It privileges one people’s right to exist over others without explicitly saying as much. How would the Pope address the fact that his statements ignore the Palestinian people and their continued occupation by the state of Israel? Moreover, how would the Pope address the fact that in 1948 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in what is now the borders of Israel? Do Palestinians have a right to exist and by extension, a right to defend themselves? Or is “the right to exist” rhetoric granted only to Israel? If we’re talking realpolitik here, both peoples have a right to defend themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

“It’ll take time to restore chaos.”

It’s one of George W. Bush’s most famous garbled quotes, but lately I’ve begun wondering if it was actually intended as a straightforward description of America’s long-term ambitions in the Middle East. By now, it’s clear to everyone that the U.S. failed to achieve even a single stated goal in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And surely anyone with any intellectual integrity has to be asking very serious questions about whether any of those goals — building a stable democratic republic, rooting out all terrorists ever, etc. — were ever even possible. Yet things seem to be more or less on automatic pilot over there, with Obama pondering leaving troops in Afghanistan for all eternity.

This is one of those points where one needs to apply the “what if it’s a feature, not a bug” test. What if the positive goal is to create chaos and turmoil? If we stipulate that the U.S. can’t positively shape events in the Middle East — or, what amounts to the same thing, that it’s not willing to commit the resources necessary — then the next-best result is to prevent anyone else from controlling the situation.

From this perspective, we can see the true horror of America’s Middle East policy: a seething cauldron of violence that threatens to explode into World War III is preferable to allowing anything like genuine self-determination by the people of the Middle East. And it becomes even worse when you realize that the whole thing is engineered to maintain control over a fuel source that may literally render the earth uninhabitable in the long run.

As a Palestinian preacher once said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

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