Friday, March 21, 2008

The Poverty of the Presidential Campaign

From Sam Smith over at the Progressive Review:

. . . my work leads me into a frustrating dichotomy. At some points of the day I concern myself with the often trivial distinctions we make between candidates. But then, moments later, I find myself facing news that glaciers are in their worst shape in 5,000 years, that the Iraq War may cost $1 trillion, that Bush has assaulted the Constitution again, and that the financial markets are in their worst shape in decades. And none of the candidates who stand a chance of being elected - McCain, Clinton or Obama - have anything useful or meaningful to say on such topics.

Indeed, the candidates' emphasis upon trivialities is remarkable, as their campaigns look more and more contrived with each passing day. But it raises another related question: Is it an inevitable product of the US political process, and, if so, should we participate in it at all?

A couple of days ago, I commented upon the deficiencies of Obama's foreign policy positions over at Left I on the News, and suggested that we refuse to vote, because we merely legitimize this illusory process of political participation by doing so. After all, people have historically advocated electoral boycotts in a variety of contexts when it was apparent that an electoral process was being manipulated. Like any political strategy, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't.

Eli Stephens over at Left I on the News rejected my suggestion:

Richard, not voting is precisely what the ruling class would love for you to do. By not voting at all, you are sending a message that you are one more apathetic American who is perfectly content in your own little house, and isn't concerned that the world is blowing up and falling down outside you. Every vote garnered by a Ralph Nader or a Cynthia McKinney or a Gloria La Riva is one more vote that says, OUT LOUD, that you are fed up with the system and want real change. Not voting is like having an antiwar protest in your living room. No one hears it.

In a different way, Justin Raimondo over at would reject it as well. In regard to the anti-imperialist struggle, he has exhibited, as a libertarian, a remarkable degree of political pragmatism. In 2004, he openly exhorted people to vote for John Kerry, in 2006, he fervently hoped for a Democratic victory, and, now, in 2008, it is clear that he wants to see Barack Obama elected as the next President. Given his belief that the anti-imperialist struggle is the essential one of our time, one that I share with him, he is quite willing to support political figures that are, in most other respects, antithetical to his libertarian philosophy. He is also willing to support them with full knowledge that none of them will bring the troops home tomorrow, but may assist with the creation of a social movement that will do so in the future.

But there are problems with the views of both Stephens and Raimondo. Stephens, to his credit, supports a candidate for President, Gloria La Riva, whose views closely parallel his own. But does a vote for her, or Nader or McKinney really say that I am fed up with the system and want real change? For those of you familiar with my postmodernist sensibility, it should come as no surprise that I doubt it. Instead, I tend to believe that the presidential campaign has become a manifestation of a spectacle of the kind described by Debord. In this instance, the imagery of the campaign has long ago substituted for the notion that we actually exercise political power by participating in it.

There is also the practical aspect, as presented in my original comment over at Left I. Do Nader, McKinney and La Riva challenge the system by standing as candidates, or do they legitimize it? If they did not run, there would only be two candidates, the Republican and the Democratic one. Regardless of the outcome, we could plausibly argue that much of society was not represented in it. But, what happens when, as in 2004, Nader runs and gets approximately 0.5% of the vote? Of course, the result is taken as proof that the remaining 99.5% of the voters were perfectly happy with a limited choice between the two major party candidates.

A response to Raimondo requires walking upon different terrain. As I said, his disciplined pragmatism is commendable. Most people find it hard to understand that, to obtain an absolutely essential result, one must often vote for candidates that have other disreputable qualities. He is consistently willing to do it in order to curtail, and eventually eliminate, US imperial influence. No, the flaw lies elsewhere. Raimondo is operating on the assumption that the person who becomes President matters in regard to transforming the American Empire. Or, to put it differently, that it is possible to elect someone who will retain their independence from the powerful interests that dominate this country and much of the world.

Unfortunately, a Napoleon, a Gorbachev, an FDR, they don't come around that frequently, and, even when they do, they require a confluence of external events, a backdrop of domestic and international turmoil, to empower them. Perhaps, we are living in such a time, but, as my evaluation of Obama and the activism of Direct Action to Stop the War indicate, I consider the underlying social aspects of US life more important than the political process, at least at this time. It is also important to note that Raimondo, unlike Stephens, is more willing to vote for a major party candidate as a form of long term reformism.

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