Paul Jay of The Real News had an interesting discussion (in two parts) with author and scholar Henry Giroux about a potential Trump presidency and its implications for democracy. In normal times, I would find Giroux laughably hyperbolic when he says, for instance, that under a Trump presidency the world is in serious danger of nuclear war, or that political dissent would be criminalized.
These are not normal times.
Jay and Giroux seem to be in agreement that the solutions to our hypercapitalist duopoly problem lie outside of that system, whether by way of a third party or some other means of uniting and leveraging a broad coalition of leftist forces.
The real enemy here is not the Republican or Democratic parties. The real enemy here is finance capital. The real enemy here is a savage form of neoliberalism that breeds nothing but misery, intolerance, inequality and massive degrees of human suffering. I mean look, 70,000 people die a year in the US because of poverty. You have young people who have been completely written out of the script of democracy, burdened with debts, told that all the problems that they face, they’re responsible for. We’ve lost the ability to translate private issues into public concerns. And we need to mobilize in ways in which matters of education become central to politics itself. We need to convince people, the left needs to convince people, that the problems that they’re talking about are problems that people can identify with and recognize themselves in. That’s going to take a long time. That’s not going to happen tomorrow.
It’s a long term project to be sure, and even then the odds are stacked against it succeeding. We certainly have our work cut out for us, especially when America’s Owners’ interests are best served by keeping us divided and distracted, infiltrating our movements, cultivating our apathy and force-feeding us myths about bootstraps and “law and order” and “spreading democracy” on every goddamn channel on the teevee.
Giroux also makes the observation that the Green Party’s appeal is not broad enough, and I agree. But the prospect of collecting under one umbrella environmental movements and prison reform movements and antipoverty movements and antiwar movements and human rights movements (e.g. Black Lives Matter and pro-choice activism) and education movements and healthcare reform movements and gun control movements and drug policy reform movements and Wall Street reform movements and police reform movements and living wage movements and and and…well, that is one hell of a tall order. Even without our media problem—and that is a very big problem—our built-in biases ensure that we will almost certainly fail to notice the vital connections and common causes between all of these seemingly distinct movements, in favor of far simpler, narrower and (usually) more self-serving narratives.
I am reminded of a quote from author Michael J. Smith:
The Democratic Party is not only a necropolis where activists decay into bureaucrats; it’s also a toxic growth poisoning the soil where activism grows — the crabgrass or milfoil that crowds out all the other species and devours all the nutrients. It is not merely an alternative to activism; it is the enemy of activism, and thus the enemy of any politics worthy of the name — by which I mean politics that goes beyond an empty, meaningless rivalry between two white-collar street gangs for the spoils of office.
Smith makes a powerful case against lesser evilism: the only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.
[T]he only thing that will make the Democrats change is the prospect of annihilation if they don’t. And the only way to raise that specter before their eyes is for their captive constituencies to desert them in droves. As long as they think you have nowhere else to go, they will take you for granted. And the only way to convince them you have somewhere else to go is… to go there.
Under certain circumstances, I agree with him. I live in one of the deepest blue neighborhoods in one of the deepest blue cities in one of the deepest blue states in the nation, so my vote for a leftist third party candidate is never going to shift the outcome of any election in my district. It would be an entirely different calculus if I lived in a swing state. But to hear some of my friends and neighbors tell it, I am “wasting my vote.” Hahaha no. That is the opposite of “wasting my vote.” Putting a few measly points up on the board for a candidate that is not just less evil but actually good on a range of issues may accomplish nothing except annoying the Dem establishment, which frankly is reason enough to do it. However, putting enough points up on the board to scare them? That is how you shift their calculus. The discourse changes, priorities shift, and suddenly there are opportunities that did not exist before. What the “wasting your vote” people don’t seem to grok is that you don’t need your candidate to win in order to make progress on your issues.
I am also a big fan of primary campaigns for similar tactical reasons. That’s the reason I am registered as a Democrat in New York, and active in GOTV efforts on primary days. I also support liberal Dems against
conservative Dems Squirrel People in other states’ primaries. (And if you’d like to do the same, my BFF Alan Grayson is in a tight primary race in Florida against party pick Patrick Murphy, who is the absolute fucking worst, for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat. Seriously, it’s worth contributing a few bucks to Grayson’s campaign just to get his emails. They’re great.)
But my problem with lesser evilism is actually tangential to Smith’s: I have yet to see anyone who makes that case answer to my satisfaction the question of how we stop accruing evil, in larger or smaller increments. After righteously shilling and voting for the conservative Democrat every four years, very few lesser evilists go on to participate in any sort of meaningful activism, much less the hard work of coalition building along the lines of what Giroux is suggesting. To think you’ve somehow made the world a much better place than it is today by voting for the Dem and sitting home for four years consuming corporate media is simply ludicrous. That is not how the world works.
At the same time, is it not a moral imperative to stanch the bleeding as best we can by electing the least harmful of the two candidates the system has graciously puked up for us? For the first time in many years, the difference between the Dem and the Rethug is not negligible. It’s not even close. Way too many people have way too much to lose, up to and including their lives, if this shit goes down the wrong way. Well, those of us who are not white, straight, cis, gainfully employed, able-bodied males do, anyway. There is a reason that particular demographic is more prone than others to cast votes based solely on the contents of their wallets (tax breaks! spending cuts! small government!): it is because that is the only thing they have on the line, unlike literally everyone else.
But maybe this time it’s different. It is just not much of a stretch to foresee this man lighting the fuse that blows up the world. I mean to the point where even the disaster capitalists do not stand to make a buck.
As I said, these are not normal times.
But I am tired (not to mention bored…) of people—particularly white, straight, cis, gainfully employed, able-bodied male people—pretending that you can either participate in this system or actively work to undermine it, as if it’s a binary choice. It isn’t. Minimizing harm by participating in our unjust and unsustainable system does not preclude anyone from simultaneously working to subvert it and/or to build something outside of it. Sitting home this November 8 does not make you more radical or more liberal than thou. It just makes you a douche. Paul Jay and Henry Giroux seem to get this, and it’s refreshing.