Charlie Brown never learns that Lucy will always pull the football away. Democratic supporters should be smarter than that.
One of the most haunting scenes in George Orwell's 1984 is the "Two-Minute Hate." On a regular basis, members of the ruling Party (but not the Inner Party) are gathered in a room and shown images of a contrived enemy state and its supposed leader, Emmanuel Goldstein. The Party loyalists scream profanities and hurl objects at the screen, and one particularly angry member runs forward and flails her arms wildly at the images.
The point of the scene is that the Party members are being manipulated into being blind to the political reality in their country. It's the very people presenting them with the images and encouraging their hate who are the tyrants and the oppressors. Combined with the equally powerful emotion of fear (which I will address in my next post), this hate prevents the people in Orwell's fictional society from rising up and achieving their freedom.
Of course, the United States in 2012 is not the same thing as 1984. But we do see a good bit of hate being encouraged by those who hold both the political and economic power in our society. And that hate does serve to blind us in many ways from the oppressive reality of the current political and economic system. The hatred that is stoked prevents the people from achieveing something more just and democratic.
The easy parallel to draw to 1984 is FoxNews, only it's not just two-minutes. It's 24 non-stop hours. I know people who watch FoxNews for a large portion of each day, and who watch in anger and bitterness.
Barack Obama plays the part of Emmanuel Goldstein, and the Democratic Party is the superstate that is responsible for all the evil in society. Every day presents a new reason to hate the president and his party, and to blame them for problems that are both real and contrived.
In the process, the FoxNews loyalists are never challenged to see the negative side of their own party and the politicians they support. In fact, the "24-hour hate" network enages them in a process of projection where they see in the hated Democrats their own worst traits. For example, I have heard several ultra conservative friends of mine describe Obama as the most divisive president of all time - which is utterly false and even laughable, but which they believe because FoxNews told them so.
FoxNews viewers are certainly never encouraged to look behind the curtain of where the real power in our country lies, and to ask questions about how the political system as a whole is being manipulated to enrich a small minority of the population.
The question for the rest of us, then, is who are we being encouraged to hate? For those who don't watch FoxNews, do we have our own forums that are the equivalent of the "Two-Minute Hate"? And how do we free ourselves from this manipulation?
Several years ago, contoversy erupted in South Carolina over the Confederate flag that flew over the State House. Some people decided to boycott the state, not taking vacations there or stopping for gas when driving through.
Eventually, officials moved the flag to a location in a less visible place. The boycotters must have congratulated themselves for a job well done, even though the actual racism in the state remains as strong as ever.
In most areas of the state, whites and blacks have done little to no integration of their neighborhoods; blacks still comprise a much greater percentage of the poor; blacks face much harsher criminal penalties for crimes similar to what whites commit; the public education system still grossly underfunds schools in majority black districts; and the attitudes of many of the white residents are still openly racist.
The flag boycott did nothing to improve any of these situations. It merely made the people who went to Panama City instead of Myrtle Beach, or who waited to stop for lunch until they reached Georgia - it merely made these folks feel as if they were fighting racism, when in fact they were not. A flag flying on top of the State House might be an offensive symbol to some, but it is a red herring in the long and difficult struggle for racial justice in the South.
Which brings us to Chik-Fil-A. Is this boycott and its backlash similar to the protest over the South Carolina flag? Whether one eats at Chik-Fil-A, or goes acrosss the street to Wendy's, does it really make a difference in the debate over gay marriage? Or is it a red herring that makes people feel like they are doing something significant, when in fact they are avoiding the real work and the real sacrifices being made by those on the front lines of this issue?
Those on the pro-gay marriage side will contend that the owners of Chik-Fil-A have chosen to be vocal on this issue, and give a lot of money to anti-gay causes - warranting a public protest. Those on the other side do not wish to see business leaders that they admire taking a public drubbing. Others simply don't like activists telling them what they should do.
Either way, I can't see how the Chik-Fil-A episode will bring our country closer to resolution on this very divisive issue. In a week or two, it will fade from national headlines. And in a few months, it will be forgotten by all but the hardcore activists on either side.
My hope is that more people can resist the temptation to bite at the red herrings like the "Battle of Chik-Fil-A," and can dedicate themselves long-term to a cause that requires more hard work, more sacrifice, and more perseverance than the decision of what to eat for lunch.
1) Why did the federal government use trillions of the people's dollars to bail out large financial and car companies, but a tiny fraction of that amount to directly help those losing their jobs and homes?
2) Why is there so much talk about lowering the deficit, but then Congress and the president agree not to do the one thing that could most accomplish that - letting the tax cuts on the wealthy expire?
3) Why do we consider corporations persons when it comes to campaign finance, but not tax them in the same way as an actual person?
4) Why do we consider corporations persons, but not subject them to the estate tax when their life is ended and their assets are transferred to another corporation?
5) Why do we consider corporations persons, but nobody goes to jail when they do atrocious and illegal acts, as an actual person would?
6) Why has it proved impossible for a climate change bill to even make it to the floor of the House or Senate?
7) Why does the wealthiest nation in the world have a transportation system that is laughably antiquated compared to other developed nations?
8) Why do the campaigns (and everyone else, for that matter) spend more time obsessing over gaffes and out-of-context quotes - which have little to do with how qualified for president someone might be - than the actual records and policy statements of the candidates?
9) Why do we continue to use an electoral system that diminsihes the voting influence of the majority of Americans and elevates the importance of a few swing states?
10) How is it possible that, after more than 1800 errors in the 2008 election, 16 states still have computer voting without any paper back-up?
In my previous post, I outlined three ways that progressives could change the face of American politics: (1) A movement within the Democratic Party, (2) A true third party movement, or (3) An independent movement that forces the Democrats to shift to the left.
These three methods, however, depend on one assumption. They require that we maintain the liberal-conservative axis that has dominated American politics for at least a century. Some progressives, however, are coming to believe that the key to meaningful change is to bring this familiar paradigm to an end. For us to forge a new political reality in the coming years and decades, we will need to find some new labels to help us define the American people.
This does not mean that we will operate in a non-partisan, category-free fantasy world. But it does mean that the lines of partisanship will be shifting, and that those who adjust and embrace the new categories will succeed in the new era. With this paradigm shift in mind, here are three new political dichotomies that are emerging:
(1) Corporatist vs. Populist
The idea that large corporations and their lobbyists have hijacked the American political system is far from new, and neither is the awareness that both Republicans and Democrats have been bought by corporate donations. Nonetheless, too many progressives are still breaking down the problem of corporatism along party lines, believing that the Republicans are the real problem and that the “true Democrats” can still work a solution.
Obama's first term (beholden to big corps in many ways) has cured many progressives of this notion. We need to see the issue as no longer Democrats vs. Republicans, but as those who work for big business (which is almost everyone currently in Washington) vs. those who fight for the people.
(2) Globalist vs. Localist
This dichotomy distinguishes those who see value in greater connectivity and greater inter-dependency between the various regions of the world from those who appreciate local diversity and independence.
From the abusive globalist economics of the IMF and transnational corporations; to the increasingly globalist politics emerging from organizations such as the UN and the EU; to the monoculture that is slowly spreading like a virus through mass media and cultural imperialism – in all of these ways, the world is becoming a new Tower of Babel.
But many people are fighting back against globalism and the rise of corporate dominance – as is evidenced in our country by the local food movement and the renewal of the isolationist spirit. “Small is beautiful” is an emerging slogan of this resistance that warms my heart.
(3) Materialist vs. Spiritualist
I won’t say much about these categories yet, but they are very different than “secular vs. religious.” They have nothing to do with the institutions of organized religion, and everything to do with the way we live our daily lives. Are we pursuing greater financial wealth and material gain for ourselves, or are we living self-sacrificial lives that seek to improve the welfare of others?
If we can begin to break down our culture into these and other new categories, instead of just saying that it’s liberal vs. conservative or left vs. right to the death, we will be many steps down the road of building a new and more progressive way of doing politics.
And here's the key: The Democratic Party can stick with the old paradigm, or it can begin to work according to new dichotomies. Perhaps it will take a strong independent movement to convince them.
If you are progressive, you are hungry for change. By definition, you are a person who would like to see the American government progress into something different and better than what it is now. This is what unites us.
How we change and what that change looks like is where we start to splinter into many different camps. Here, as part of my series on third-party and independent movements, is an oversimplfied description of the three basic ways this desired change could come about:
1) A Movement Within the Democratic Party
The right-wing takeover of the Republican Party that began with Ronald Reagan is a good model. Methodically and relentlessly, the ultra conservatives plotted out a slow conquest of the GOP that took 20 years to come to fruition in the presidency of George W. Bush.
The genius of this intra-party revolution was the coalescing of religious, economic, and military zealots. Individually, they posed no threat to the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Together, they were able to shift the entire nation several notches to the right.
Some progressives are hoping for this kind of process to happen in the Democratic Party, shifting the nation back to where it was in 1980. There are currently a number of organized effotts to groom progressives for movement into higher offices as Democrats.
I'm personally skeptical of such a movement finding success, as these candidates are often required to sell their progressive souls either to get elected, or to have influence and power once they get into office.
2) A True Third Party Movement
Historical precedents are rare for the building of a new party from scratch, but it has happened, sort of. The Republican Party has a complicated early history that involved several new parties emerging as the Whigs declined and abolition became a primary issue. Nonetheless, that era does prove that the two major parties are not indestructible, and that given the right circumstances, a new party can arise.
What might be impossible, I'm told, is for a third party to arise while the other two remain strong. Invariably, the old party that is closest in ideology to the new one will weaken and die.This is why many Democrats do not want to discuss the possibility of a progressive third party. They fear it will either play spoiler, like Nader in 2000; or will grow strong enough to weaken the Democrats and give power over to the the Republicans.
The true third party method, therefore, is a catch-22 - unless one is so disenchanted with the two-party system that they don't think it matters which of the old parties is in power. In my opinion, we are not yet at that point. The Republican agenda is scary enough that I will not support someone like the Greens yet. (although I will write about the idea!)
3) An Independent Movement That Overlaps With A Major Party
The obvious example here is the Tea Party. Focused sharply on economic issues like the national debt, Congressional spending, and taxation, the Tea Party became enough of a force to spook the Republicans into action. Quickly co-opting the Tea Party message and many of its candidates, the GOP shifted even further to the right as it worked not to see its base fractured.
The Republicans were successful at neutralizing the threat, but the ongoing influence of the Tea Party is indisputable, from the GOP landslide in the 2010 mid-terms to the dramtic shift to the right in Congress' economic agenda.
To me, this seems like the best model for progressives to use to try to steer America back to a sane place in its politics. An independent, grassroots movement that unabashedly promotes progressives values could gain considerable steam if we could find a way to unify. And as a voice that is independent of the official Democratic Party, it would have the freedom and the courage to truly tell it like it is.
The Occupy movement embodies the proper spirit and is a step in the right direction. To be a true political game-changer, however, a progressive movement would have to broaden both its concerns and its constituency. We could trumpet issues such as the living wage and worker justice, fighting climate change, full LGBTQ rights, and true financial reform - just to name a few.
Again, however, my experience makes me doubtful that progresives can find the unity and leadership to launch such a movement. But it is our best hope to do as our name says we do - to help our nation progress into something different and better.
I know that it's real. I have witnessed it firsthand. More times than I care to recount.
Being a white male living in a small town in the South, I am often privy to conversations where everyone is assumed to be a conservative Obama-hater. I have heard him called "that fucking nigger." I have heard his assassination called for. I have heard the theory expounded at length that white men founded this nation, that a white man should always be in the White House, and that Obama's presence there represents the decline of a once great society.
When I go online, however, and try to talk about the racism that is real and that undergirds much of the anti-Obama sentiment fromt he right, I am usually accused of being small-minded and racist myself. I wish more folks could have my experience of hearing the bigotry and the race-based hatred firsthand.
Which begs one very important question as Barack Obama runs for reelection. What role, if any, should race and racism play in the conversation? It is clearly part of much of the behind-the-scenes conversation on the right, with bigotry that is as old as the nation itself being baited to energize certain aspects of the Republican base. We have even seen Republican officials admit that there have been meetings to plan how to block black voters from the polls.
In short, if the left decides to talk about these disturbing matters, it is not injecting the race card. It is merely responding to the veiled and not-so-veiled racism that is already influencing the campaign.
My opinion? It's time to call out the racist elements on the right when and where we uncover it. The more we let this sort of reprehensible politics go unchallenged out of fear of being called politically incorrect, the more we enable the bigotry that our nation should have moved past long ago.
1. False: The bad economy is Obama’s fault.
Closer to the Truth: Obama started well in trying to fix an incredibly difficult situation, but he was soon hampered by the “just say no” tactics of the Republicans. Let’s just say that based on the way things were going when he took office, and given the broken state of Congress, things could be a lot worse than they are.
2. False: Obama is a liberal president.
Closer to the Truth: Obama ran a center-left campaign in 2008, and has since governed like a moderate, sometimes even a center-right president. It’s because the Republicans have turned so far to the right that the center appears to be the left. Obama has seemed interested more in brokering compromises than pushing his own agenda - although he has taken some more progressive stances in this election year.
3. False: Some progressives are upset with Obama because he didn’t accomplish everything he promised.
Closer to the Truth: We’re upset because he too often refused to stand his ground, even on bedrock issues such as tax cuts for the wealthy and the public option for health care. And when it became clear that Congress wasn’t going to cooperate, he at least could have become a vocal advocate for issues he campaigned on, such as the environment.
4. False: The Republicans taking back the White House will be a disaster of Biblical proportions that will forever ruin the United States.
Closer to the Truth: There would be some consequences, such as the probability that the Supreme Court would remain conservative for a long time. But let’s not forget that we will have more elections in 2014 and 2016. Just ask the Republicans how “the end of the world” is not really the end of the world.
5. False: The mainstream media has a liberal bias (or a conservative one).
Closer to the Truth: The media is most interested in increasing their profits, which gives it an unmistakable bias toward the status quo of the two-party system. As long as we have Republicans and Democrats engaged in biannual slugfests, they’ll be happy.
6. False: The successful people in society are the ones who make a lot of money.
Closer to the Truth: Wealth is just one of many ways success can be measured. The notion that our nation should be divided into “winners” and “losers” based on the size of our paychecks is a tool for the wealthy to increase their wealth.
7. False: Getting corporate money out of elections will solve most of our problems.
Closer to the Truth: It would be a positive step, but the real battle is to develop a responsible media and a voting public that is more aware of how information is distributed and distorted. If the average voter understands how money influences elections, and learns that there are ways we can work around this system, it won’t matter how much corporations spend. Things will change.
What false narratives would you like to add to the list?
As I unfold this series, I have received many comments telling me that a third-party movement is pointless and impossible. America, I'm told, is hopelessly entreched in the Democrat vs. Republican paradigm.
History tells a different story. Consider the following facts:
- In 1832, two non-major candidates won electoral votes in the presidential campaign.
- In the 1850's, a new party (The Republicans) emerged and sent the traditional Whig Party to its grave. They rallied around a major social justice issue in American history, the abolition of slavery.
- Before World War I, there were more than 600 cities with mayors who were socialists and belonged to neither major party, with Milwaukee being the largest. Much of the worker justice movement was born in these cities and because of these mayors.
- In 1912, a third-party candidate (former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt) outpolled the incumbent Howard Taft, allowing The Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win - initiating a sea change in the history of the Republican Party and the tone of American politics in general.
- In 1968, a regional third-party candidate (George Wallace) gained 45 electoral votes. The way he split the Democratic base and enabled the dawn of the Republican Southern strategy signalled another sea change in American politics. In addition, his racist rheotric and loyal following exposed to the nation the deplorable attitudes of much of the South toward segregation.
- In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot literally bought his way into presidental contention. He didn't win any electoral votes, but recevied 19% of the popular vote and enabled Bill Clinton to win a surprise victory over incumbent Geroge Bush. Perot brought the issue of national debt into the limelight, and his campaign style raised questions about the influence of money on elections.
- Since 1990, two independent Senators (Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman) have been elected. Lieberman's comeback win after a primary defeat shows how personality can trump party.
Clearly, one does not need to have an (R) or a (D) by one's name to make an impact on the American political system. Those who make that claim are either ignorant of history, or have loyalties to one of the major parties that prevent from seeing other possibilities. The more public opinion grows suspicious of the Republican/Democrat hegemony, the more tightly those two parties cling to their power and distort the facts which suggest that other paradigms are plausible.
In the next post, I'll dig into a question that is very relevant to anyone seeking life beyond the two major parties. Many say that while it might be possible for a third party to rise (as the Republicans did in the mid 1800's), it will inevitably lead to the death of one of the other major parties - giving us the same two-party system, just with different names.
Such a shift, however, is not innocuous. It invariably leads to one of those sea changes in American politics, such as the election of Wilson right before World War I - an event whose significance can't be overstated. Clearly, third party candidates are often the catalysts for some of the most significant changes that happen in our nation.
Recently, a friend of mine used a cute jungle-themed video to explain why third-party candidates are doomed to fail. It relies on logic and a sound understanding of human nature, but it misses a key ingredient to the process. A personal story from a few years back will help illustatre my point.
In 2008, I was invited to write for a relatively unknown progressive blog called The Seminal. Eventually, that blog was absorbed into the prominent political site FDL, where I remained in an editorial position (albeit as a volunteer).
I helped edit the backpage that featured submitted posts, managed a regular nightly segment called "The Watercooler," and had my writing feaured on the FDL mainpage about a dozen times.
FDL is a progressive site that is mostly supportive of Obama and the Democrats. But as his first term progressed, I grew disenchanted both with his performance and the ongoing support he has received from many prominent progressives.
As a result, my writing topics gradually shifted away from issues like poverty and the environment and toward the need to shake up the two-party system. Eventually, I launched a series called "Uncommon Ground," which called on people from all sides of the political spectrum to remove themselves from the partisan bickering and start working to change the false paradigm of left vs. right.
Whether by direct intention or not, I stopped being promoted to the frontpage of FDL, even though my writings received a good deal of support and praise on the backpages of the site. It didn't take me long to realize that my ideas on reforming the two-party paradigm were being quarantined. Tired of pouring my heart into blogposts that would never reach the daylight of the frontpage, I left FDL in frustration.
Six months later, however, I decided to start writing again - and this time I didn't mince words. In a searing post, I laid out my theory that the two-party system needed to change before any issues important to progressives could be addressed. Then, I argued that people who had achieved influential positions in politics were too enmeshed in the system to work to change it. They either have a salary, a reputation, or a place of power that depends on keeping the status quo. That is why writing like mine - no matter how many upvotes it might get - will forever be buried in the backpages of progressive media outlets.
My article rocketed to the top of the submitted posts lists, and a flurry of comments broke out for and against my assertions. Somewhere in the middle of the flurry came a rather uncharacteristic threat from site owner Jane Hamsher. It was presumably because I had implied that I was on staff at FDL (which I honestly believed myself to be), and when I responded with another searing post the next day, my account was erased.
On a site where open-mindedness and honest discussion from all viewpoints were the rule of the day, it seems I had finally found the taboo topic. Or at least I had taken an unwanted topic, and was generating too much energy and support for it. FDL leadership had been challenged before, someitmes viciously attacked, and had not responded in this way.
To this day, I wonder if the order to terminate my account came from higher up than the site owner. There is no way I'll ever know, but it is clear that FDL had no intention of letting a two-party critique become a theme on their front page. I was stunned at how abruptly the door was slammed - and honestly, I don't blame anyone at FDL. What happened to me was a function of the two-party system as a whole working to preserve its power and hegemony.
In the next post, I'll further discuss my story and the stories of others who have challened the two-party system. Then, I'll move to some strategies for breaking down what seems to be an unshakable two-party fortress.