Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Let's Not Start Sucking Each Other's Dicks Quite Yet"

The admirable David Sirota, whose ideals are unfashionably substantive (as opposed to the sort of idealism now in season that's just as vaporous as it is vapid), finds himself, post-DNC, torn. Now I can't really blame him for nearly catching the contagious Denver optimism. But he also knows better, knows that being Hopey can make one dopey, and the contradiction shows up in his latest writing, here:

Now that the convention is over, I can report that all of what I feared, in fact, took place. Denver's downtown became a perpetual throng, insufferable Washington hacks from my past were unavoidable, and corporate money was so ubiquitous that even my ticket holder was emblazoned with a Qwest logo.

That said, I can also report that this spectacle actually had value, beyond the free booze and celebrity sightings. Conventions, I discovered, can be building blocks of social change - and if this year's Democratic convention ends up with any historical legacy beyond nominating Barack Obama, it will likely be remembered as one of many events that helped forge a contemporary progressive movement.

He goes on to cite the presence of radicals and idealists (some, like Sirota, the substantive sort; some not) outside the convention as proof. Then he relates a friendly exchange between a member of the corporate wing that is actually close to Obama and an activist of the wing that is not. The truth is that the suits in the Denver cards tend to be more clubs and diamonds rather than the hearts Sirota wants to see in his hand; but then idealists never want to fold even when the deck's stacked. Thus, wishful thinking. He's a bit more sober in his other piece:

By the time the 2008 Democratic presidential primary hit, progressives had laid the groundwork for a full takeover of the party. Because labor, environmental, antiwar and other grassroots groups had set the stage so effectively, the competition between John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became a competition to show who was a more full-throated progressive. The heat of that supercharged battle ended up burning off the corporate naysayers and unifying the party.

Of course, the work still continues, as money remains a persistent and powerful force. For all his populist rhetoric, Obama still surrounds himself not with the grassroots organizers that he brags about starting his career around, but instead with a mix of Wall Street profiteers and Ivory Tower elites like Cass Sunstein, who wrap their free market fundamentalism in the argot of academia...


Thankfully, the millions of rank-and-file citizens who comprise the Democratic Party have finally answered the age-old question: Which side are you on? And they have answered it by siding with America’s progressive majority, suggesting that a progressive pressure system will indeed follow Obama into office, if he is elected. That is critical, because Obama hasn’t yet decisively answered the same question - the question of which side he is on. It will be up to the newly invigorated Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to make sure he listens to the public - not the Establishment job-seekers now flocking to his inner circle - when he answers that question.

The question is not what Obama will do; his interest and tendencies are plain to those with eyes and ears and a modicum of common sense. The question is what the movement will do about Obama once he's president. Of course on many issues it will have to prod him; on others, it will have to defend him. But how far will it go in opposing him? Punishing him? What will it do if or when he bombs Iran or Pakistan? What will it do if or when he decides that, yes, some physical and political vestiges of the American Empire must remain in Iraq? What will it do when his health care proposals become even more tepid, and the policies themselves even more amenable to the insurance industry? What will it do when it becomes clear that Hope is really Hype and Obama reveals himself as the Clintonoid centrist he's always been? What will it do when the new executive discovers he rather likes the powers and pleasures and privileges of the 'unitary' office?

I suggest that, if Obama is elected (let's hope so given the alternative), we must be prepared to go directly against him, lest he take us for granted. There's a fear among us that Obama can take our ball and make us go home, that he can continue to act (as he does now) as if it's either Obamaism or Republicanism or STFU. Actually, we have quite a bit more juice than that: either Obama can lead us in a direction we're willing to go, or he can go home (or with wingnuts and their sympathizers) in four years. Recognize the truth that the politician is not your fellow idealist and it becomes easier to exert a real pressure to which he'll positively respond. Because his interests are not ours. From Thomas Love Peacock's "novel," Melincourt, here's Mr. Sarcastic telling the cynical, gospel truth:

Custom is the pillar round which opinion twines, and interest is the tie that binds it. It is not by reason that practical change can be effected, but by making a puncture to the quick in the feelings of personal hope and personal fear. The Reformation in England is one of the supposed triumphs of reason. But if the passions of Henry the Eighth had not been interested in that measure, he would as soon have built mosques as pulled down abbies: and you will observe, that, in all cases, reformation never goes as far as reason requires, but just as far as suits the personal interest of those who conduct it. Place Temperance and Bacchus side by side, in an assembly of jolly fellows, and endow the first with the most powerful eloquence that mere reason can give, with the absolute moral force of mathematical demonstration,' Bacchus need not take the trouble of refuting one of her arguments; he will only have to say, "Come, my boys; here's Damn Temperance in a bumper," and you may rely on the toast being drank with an unanimous three times three.

Even inadequate reforms are only possible when the powerful are forced through immediate, personal interest to get along with the program. In the past, this was only accidental, as per the Henry the Eighth example: the structure of "custom" forbid anything more grand and deliberate. As for the context of our era... well, it's in a politician's personal and immediate interest to be popular, to be elected and re-elected.

The promise of one's vote and support is the hammer which threatens to strike a politician's knuckles as he clings to office. Don't be surprised, then, that a politician gets way too comfy on his perch (and therefore gets too kissy-face with the real experts in and instruments of corruption) when he knows that the hammer is always in your pocket, only taken out to smack the other guy's fingers. I think that the day after Obama's election we should start looking at supporting other politicians to Obama's left -- to push Obama left, to make immediate the threat of a hard 2012 primary, to make sure he does what he promised plus some. Also, and perhaps counterintuitively because it contains so many semi-wingnut Blue Dogs, we should be prepared to support Congress against the President on most issues on which they clash if only to strengthen the most democratic institution in our government (and the one which, not accidentally, has been losing the most power) and weaken the most autocratic (the executive). The new executive won't like this, but TS for him. You know what they say about absolute power; well, the power of the executive branch has grown absolutely throughout the country's history. Today he (no matter his name, or party affiliation) has more power than the Founders ever dreamed of -- or feared. But then, like Ben Franklin said, sooner or later, every Republic degenerates into a tyranny. Yes, I have an historical analogy ready. When he was out of power, alienated and brooding at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson the democrat chaffed under the arbitrary, unconstitutional, "monarchical" presidential powers of John "Alien & Sedition Acts" Adams. Well, here's Henry Adams (in his biography of that hilarious eunuch, John Randolph of Roanoke), the first president Adams's great-grandson, taking a bit of pleasure in showing how Mr. November Jefferson, once he got the office, let down his admirers in relishing the executive power he'd so long railed against:

Never did any party or any administration in our country begin a career of power with such entire confidence that a new era of civilization and liberty had dawned on earth. If Mr. Jefferson did not rank among his followers as one of the greatest lawgivers recorded in history, a resplendent figure seated by the side of Moses and Solon, of Justinian and Charlemagne, the tone of the time much belies them. In his mind, what had gone before was monarchism; what came after was alone true republicanism... Thus it was that he took into his hand the federalists' constitution, and set himself to the task of stripping away its monarchical excrescences, and restoring its true republican outlines; but its one serious excrescence, the only one which was essentially and dangerously monarchical, he could not, or would not, touch; it was his own office, -- the executive power.

When [John] Randolph [of Roanoke] spoke of "substantial reform," he meant that he wanted something radical, something more than a change of office holders. The federalists had built up the nation at the expense of the States; their work must be undone. When he returned to Washington he found what it was that the President and the party proposed to do by way of restoring purity to the system. In the executive department, forms were to be renounced; patronage cut down; influence diminished; the army and navy reduced to a police force; internal taxes abandoned; the debt paid, and its centralizing influence removed from the body politic; nay, even the mint abolished as a useless expense, and foreign coins to be used in preference to those of the nation... In the legislative department there could be little change except in sentiment, and in their earnest wish to heal the wounds that the Constitution had suffered...

...All these Jeffersonian reforms... touched only the surface of things. The executive power was still there...

...[Randolph] knew where the radical danger lay, and would have supported with his usual energy any radical measures of reform, but it was not upon him that responsibility rested. The President and the Cabinet shrank from strong measures... Perhaps the real reason [why] [t]he republican party in 1801 would not touch the true sources of political danger, the executive and legislative powers, because they themselves controlled these powers...

Jefferson, it is fair to say, was in his own way even more monarchical as a President than his predecessors. He unconstitutionally purchased Louisiana (instantly, as Gore Vidal observed, subverting the conviction he'd shared with his hero Montesquieu, who maintained that republics could only remain physically small if they were to retain their virtue); he made war on the judiciary, trying to impeach a slew of judges who were competent and honest but with whom he disagreed politically; he knowingly sheltered traitors (for political purposes Jefferson retained James Wilkinson as commanding general of the U.S. Army when he knew perfectly well the villain was a spy for Spain); he most pettily meddled in trials; he claimed executive privilege in cases that would make Richard Nixon blush; he executed his own little proto-neocon war with the Tripoli Pirates. Remember, this was Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- by far the "Hopeyist" document an American has ever produced. If the power of the office of the presidency can poison a Jefferson (and it most certainly did), then only a complete nimrod would believe an Obama is immune. Obama merely wants -- and is close enough to smell -- the office; of course he was going to backstab us on FISA. So extrapolate from that. When he actually gets the presidency, his tendency will be to go even farther in that illiberal direction.

Some people will say I'm jumping the gun. Which is true if they mean I'm too easily assuming an Obama victory, false if they mean I'm too certain of Obama backstabbing us. (Actually, it's animus to the genormously ignorant good faith of the mindset behind the latter charge that inspires virtually all my posts on Obama: nothing's worse than the True Believing fanboy.) The childish certainty that Mr. November won't fuck us over would be merely silly were the stakes not so high; as it is, such certainty is insulting and menacing. If he's our candidate, and if he becomes our President, then we damn well better take responsibility for him -- by doing all that we can to make him be decent, even to the extent that we actively and substantively oppose him when he goes against the sentiments that allowed his campaign in the first place. Whatever way it goes on Election Day, fanboys and their idol are on notice.

I think we've only begun to take back our own party -- much less the country. Obamaism may be a means to that goal but it sure as hell ain't an end. And the possibility is very real that it might be an obstacle. Fanboys like to play on others' hopes by saying that Obama's triangulations are but prelude to a gigantic trickfuck he's gonna give the rightwing after he's elected. But purveyors of the trickfuck theory never admit that the nature of trickfuckery allows that it could just as easily be played on the leftwing -- and considering the power of the office and the sort of connections one cultivates in getting it, I ask which side is more likely to discover the exact length, width and depth of the shaft?