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Against the Voter-As-Consumer And Politics-As-Soap-Opera

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For reasons previously stated I disagree with several of the assumptions about the direction of the Democratic Party that underlie Adolph Reed’s essay on the 2016 election. But in this context, that’s not important — indeed, it makes his unsentimental argument about what voting can and can’t accomplish all the more powerful:

By contrast, Jill Stein and Greens typically proceed from a quite different view of electoral politics, one that has much more in common with bearing witness or taking a personal stand on principle than with seeing it as an essentially instrumental activity. The Greens’ approach generally, and Stein has shown that she is no exception, is that all that is necessary to make a substantial electoral impact is to have a strong and coherent progressive program and to lay it out in public. That view is fundamentally anti-political; it seeks to provide voters an opportunity to be righteous rather than to try to build deep alliances or even short-term coalitions. It’s naïve in the sense that its notion of organizing support reduces in effect to saying “It’s simple: if we all would just…” without stopping to consider why the simple solutions haven’t already been adopted. This is a politics that appeals to the technicistic inclinations of the professional-managerial strata, a politics, that is, in which class and other contradictions and their entailments disappear into what seems to be the universally smart program, and it has little prospect for reaching more broadly into the society. And Stein and her followers have demonstrated that this sort of politics is tone-deaf to what a Trump victory would mean, the many ways it could seriously deepen the hole we are already in. I get the point that Clinton and Trump are both evil, but voting isn’t about determining who goes to Heaven or choosing between good people and bad people. Indeed, that personalistic, ultimately soap-operatic take on electoral politics is what set so many people up to be suckered by Obama. (And does anyone really believe that a President Trump, who routinely spews multiple, contradictory lies in a single compound sentence, would actually block the Trans Pacific Partnership or retract the imperialist war machine?)

This opposition to voting as consumerism and politics as soap opera is beautifully put. One striking thing about the vast majority of the #NeverHillary crew is how quickly they retreat into “vote for Stein: it won’t make any difference whatsoever!” when challenged — they live in a deep blue state, Trump is going to lose anyway, Economics 101 tells you that your individual vote doesn’t matter, etc. It’s an argument that’s almost too lazy and self-regarding to refute itself. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of heighten-the-contradictions, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

I’ll let these grafs speak for themselves:

Often enough, the “never Hillary” stance is blinded by a demonization of Clinton that frankly seems irrational. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that it is often not at least tinted with sexism. From the standpoint of fealty to Wall Street and corporate interests, or for that matter imperialist bloodlust, she’s no worse than Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton. Some of that tendency to demonize her reflects the high emotions generated during the campaign among some of the Sanders faithful, as well as perhaps a reaction to having their outsized dreams dashed. It is understandable that in the high intensity of the campaign activists could be swept up in exuberance about possibilities. But even though winning the nomination and then the presidency was the primary objective all along, from the very beginning it was a longshot because the deck was stacked against the insurgent campaign. That’s what challenging entrenched power means. Making the race as close as it became was an important victory, one that encourages optimism about movement-building possibilities. I fear, however, that some of the exuberance tended to slide into seeing the campaign as a messianic crusade, or to see it as a social movement itself. (That’s the reason I never much cared for the “political revolution” slogan; it too easily left room for the impression that struggling to advance the campaign was tantamount to making a revolution. It wasn’t; it wasn’t even close to generating a revolutionary movement. It did create conditions that, with considerable focus and effort, could facilitate the sustained political organizing and action necessary to influence the terms of national political debate.)

To the extent that for some people Bernie v. Hillary became a Manichaean morality play, it simply repeated the wrongheaded good guys/bad guys understanding of politics that has underlain feckless left electoralism for more than a generation. And this points up an important limitation of the critique of lesser evilism. There is a significant difference between, on the one hand, making pragmatic choices in given instances among a range of more or less undesirable options that are available and, on the other, defining, as a matter of course, what we want only in terms of what we think can get. The former is what we have to do in life generally, across the board, as an artifact of living in a society in which we as individuals cannot define the matrix of options solely to suit our preferences or desires. The latter bespeaks a defeatist orientation, a politics with no rudder and one that flies in the face of what it should mean to be a left. Lesser evilism, that is to say, is a structural problem not an individual one. It is a pathology of opinion-shaping institutions—unions and others—that refrain from attempting to intervene in shaping the matrix of options and the terms of political debate. Only if one accepts, as many Greens do, a civics-text version of democracy in which it is the actions of free-agent citizens that determine the political agenda is it possible to assume that individual electoral statements can have any impact on the drift of lesser evil politics. An analogy with environmentalism may sharpen this distinction. My scrupulous attention to closing the refrigerator door or turning off lights whenever I leave a room may permit me to feel righteous in my commitment to curtail environmental degradation. They have absolutely no substantive impact on the phenomenon, however. Worse, as Andrew Szasz has argued forcefully in Shopping Our Way to Safety, my righteous behavior, especially if I convince others to adopt it, can fuel the dangerous illusion that I am doing something meaningful and relax my sense of urgency to demand structural reform.

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