Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaving the Party

I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party for as long as I’ve been voting for two reasons. In the first place, like most people, I joined a political party in the hope that I could have some level of input, even if only in the form of a vote, into the choice of leaders of that party, its philosophy, and the policies it chooses to espouse. And having decided to join a political party, the Democratic Party seemed the obvious choice. Its past, to be sure, is chequered, but it was this party that chose to address the Great Depression head-on, to make the argument that people and not markets matter most. It was the grassroots of this party that made the civil rights and anti-war movements its own. On every conceivable issue in the past 80 years—whether that be the war in Iraq, the need for universal access to healthcare, the need to make education accessible, the need to face up to the consequences of overconsumption, or progressive taxation—I feel that the Democratic Party has been far and away the closest to my own views.

But both nationally and in California, at this historical moment, these two arguments (the one for being a member of a political party and the other for making that party the Democratic Party) have ceased to hold water. The recent gubernatorial primary in California confirmed the extent to which ordinary party members are squeezed out of a money-driven selection process that should be open and democratic.

But as has long been the case, only candidates capable of raising millions of dollars are able to run seriously for the governorship. The voters of California are therefore treated not to any serious debate, but to an ad-fest. Or was as the case in this primary, not even that. Party officials, the threat of Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown’s name recognition and fundraising prowess, and the acquiescence of party members combined to ensure that no other significant name got on the ballot. Now I’m no huge fan of Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa or any other of the names bandied about, but a little choice would have been nice, and the debate that it would have engendered would have let party members know the stance of whomever they voted for.

But worse still, our corrupt and money-oriented politics squeeze out opinion. Small candidates, who scarcely got a moment’s face-time in the media, were the ones with the big ideas. Not always flawlessly worked out, not always without contradictions and difficulties. But Richard Aguirre’s ideas about the public harnessing of solar power were more original and detailed, and for that, more compelling, than anything that Jerry Brown had to say. And Peter Schurman echoed the campaign backed by vast numbers of Californians (and stiff-armed by Jerry Brown and his Republican opponents) to end minority rule in California’s legislature and empower the party with a majority of votes to raise revenue to fund schools, state parks and other public needs.

These aren’t ‘fringe’ ideas, or else they shouldn’t be. They should be the bread and butter of anyone who is committed to democracy, for whom the notion of open and honest debate holds any appeal. But there was no debate and there were no challengers with the financial means (though the moral and imaginative will was certainly there) to contest Brown’s coronation. This highlights the need for public financing in U.S. politics, the need for parties rather than campaigns to take control of the primary process and mandate debates, and the need for more political parties.

If the manner of Jerry Brown’s selection was deeply problematic, the political positions of the man himself undercut what I hoped were the deeply-held principles of the California and national Democratic Parties. As Attorney General, Brown mutilated George Lakoff’s ballot initiative which sought to put the issue of minority rule in California before the electorate in the clearest terms possible. The utter vacuousness of Brown’s politics demonstrates that he shares the moving philosophy of the Republican Party: power without responsibility.

Virtually the only announcement to come out of the Brown campaign during the primary was the declaration that he would never raise taxes as governor ‘unless the people vote for them’. Presumably he means if 67% of the people’s representatives vote for them, because that is the current threshold, and I imagine that a substantial majority of Californians wouldn’t mind paying more taxes if that meant better schools, improved social services, affordable colleges and universities and accessible state parks. Or maybe Brown intends to give a chronically apathetic and uninformed public a line-item veto where the state budget is concerned. The devolution of responsibility would be very in character.

Brown’s departures from the progressive norm are hardly isolated. During the healthcare debate we had the spectacle of Dianne Feinstein continuously wriggling over whether she would support a public option, and many other Congressmen and –women following not their consciences or the direction given them by their constituents in November of 2008, but the lead of an hysterical right-wing press and radio network with its talk of socialism, fascism, government takeover and the loss of freedom.

We have a Democratic-controlled Congress supporting a war in Afghanistan which is costing the lives of thousands of Americans and Afghans, which many military strategists recognise might both continue indefinitely and actually make us less safe than we were before September 11th, which is being escalated in Pakistan, and which is almost certainly creating the next generation of Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens. And in June we had the spectacle of a President who had committed himself to international justice and peace thumbing his nose at the international community and asserting that after killing 10 peace activists, Israel was the party best suited to oversee the investigation into its own actions.

So if there is no good reason to be a member of a party that discourages debate and democracy, if that party consistently betrays the ideals to which many of its members ascribe, and refuses to argue for the philosophy that has carried so many people so far, there remains one hurdle—and one which many people find daunting. ‘Who would you rather have?’ a family friend asked me. ‘Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman?’ The insinuation being that, although we might all find Brown’s contempt for democracy and his hazy policy positions unsavoury in the extreme, there’s no real choice...he’s better than his Republican opponent. Which is true. But how depressing it is, when presented with real and challenging questions about the future of our society, to always have to choose the lesser of two have to continuously justify your vote on the basis of it being the ‘less bad’ choice?

There is, though, a way in which Brown’s election would be worse than Whitman’s. He is running on blustery optimism, promising that things will get better because they always do in California. He is arguing that we can have world-class education and adequate social services for the hungry, the poor, the sick and the elderly without those doing well chipping in a bit more. He is asserting that when we make policy, we must arrange our morals around an economic bottom line. He boasts of getting around regulation as Mayor of Oakland, insinuating that all regulation is simply unnecessary red-tape—when in fact it was the lack of regulation (an absence regulated into being by right-wing Republicans) which has led to so many disasters, whether financial, military or environmental. And he assents to the view that the devolution of power to local government—which sounds commendable—will not contribute to inequality.

In other words, he sounds like a Republican. And if he does better on clean energy, on maintaining taxes for the wealthy, and on supporting public employees’ unions, he undercuts these positions by taking the right-wing route on taxation, regulation and occasional disregard for social services. And if we have Democrats underwriting the right-wing argument, who is left to oppose it? The social soullessness of Gingrich, Boehner, Whitman, Fiorina, Palin and Romney, their disdain for collective responsibility, and the concomitant writing off of equality will become a cross-party consensus, something that should be avoided at all costs.

California needs political reform and reinvigoration. We also have to learn how to think in more than two colours, and along a social and political spectrum with more than two dimensions. And to break the stultifying, unprogressive political mould in which we currently sit, acquiescently, we need to vote with our consciences and eschew the mathematics that the two major parties try to substitute for morality.

We also need to think about the long term. That might mean rejecting the candidate of a party that many of us have long supported as the better of two options. It might mean a Republican governorship. But if that can be followed by something genuinely progressive that will actually help people, is it not better than a Democrat who walks, talks and legislates a lot like a Republican? I hope so, and when I re-registered to vote last week, it was as a non-partisan, because the Democratic Party is increasingly not living up to its own progressive ideals, and is failing to deliver for the people who need it the most.

Personally, I will be voting Green, because their candidate has chosen to talk seriously about taxation, the environment, democracy and governance.


  1. Indulge me in telling a brief story, true, about a dear friend from undergrad in Florida. Good guy: engineer, progressive, bearded. (Not me, honest). He got similarly disillusioned with the Democrats in 2004, after Kerry got the nod. Not sure entirely why, maybe his favorite candidate didn't get through far enough. He decided to vote for Ralph Nader. Had lots of good sounding reasons too: "the parties are essentially the same" "vote your hopes not your fears" "one Yale skull and boner is the same as another" "everyone's controlled by corporate money" "we need to shake up the two party system". I pleaded and cajoled and made lots of bad bush jokes, to no avail he voted his "principals" on nov 2. And on nov 3. he was hit by a bus....just kidding he's fine. We still stay in touch. But he was very disapointed and stayed that way for 4 years.

    Feel the moral of the story is you can probably apply the african despot maxim to rightwingers. Don't every believe that things can't get any worse, because the next guy (or female former ceo) is bound to surprise you.

    And if you really think a Brown term would be worse then a Whitman one, you've been baking too long in that Orange County Sun.

  2. But you will notice that I'm not arguing that a Brown term would be worse than a Whitman term. What I'm arguing is that a Brown term would mean that there will be a consensus on some very dangerous things that will further squash debate about the fundamentals of taxation and democracy that we're currently hearing virtually nil about from the two main candidates. I think that a Brown victory will contribute to a further right-wing shift in our politics. I'm clearly not saying that I would prefer Whitman as governor: I would prefer a Green.
    If there's someone like Brown, who pretends to wear this progressive mantle, it becomes much more difficult to critique the rightward drift. If Whitman is governor with a Democratic legislature, at least the Republicans will begin having to take responsibility for their actions (for them, Schwarzeneggar's never really been 'one of us', as Thatcher would have put it). And progressives have a target. Again though, I'm not saying that I want her to win--that would be really horrible for California. But so is the idea of a Democratic governor underwriting a Republican program.