Liberal Democracy in QuestionThe Left

Moral Equivalence and the Heart of Politics

We are all very tired. I think I can say this with confidence.

Tired, that is, of this damn election. When one is tired – nerves frayed, eyeballs heavy – it is understandable when one snarls and snaps at any provocation, real or imagined. While it’s understandable it’s not commendable. Intensity may be a virtue, but incivility is a vice. Strong emotions linked to strong opinions are permissible, indeed indispensable to any kind of centered, directed life, both public and private. Strong emotions and convictions are central to what Jonathan Lear calls “Practical Identities” and Richard Rorty called “Final Vocabularies”: the words, deeds, and habits of conduct that make us who we are, personally, politically, and all points between. Having a practical identity, and acknowledging it in public through word and deed, is essential to effective political action. But it is also important to be aware of how you put it to work, lest it undermine both itself and the common good. Gratuitously nasty rhetoric accomplishes little, especially when directed at erstwhile allies. By all means take Nietzsche’s advice and philosophize with a hammer. But best to wrap it inside Kafka’s velvet glove.

This election cycle is not just wearisome, but disheartening as well. The Left, in happy times, likes to think of itself as a big tent of liberals, social democrats, and democratic socialists. But in threatening times – and times usually threaten – the Left has a nasty habit of eating its own tail until it consumes itself, like the ouroboros. This has happened enough in my middling lifetime that I am not eager to see it happen again, especially when the threat is a strange, authoritarian, nationalist, orange-hued con-artist incapable of a coherent train of thought, and who is disposed to wonder why the United States shouldn’t use the nuclear weapons it possesses. I am not suggesting that those on the Left need to put all their differences on the sidelines and come together against Trump and for Clinton. Glossing over differences not a very honest thing to do, even more so for a Left that prizes debate and dissent. But I think the Left is again in danger of going off the rails, much like it did in the 1960s, when the party of Irving Howe and the party of Abbie Hoffman squared off against each other in mutual incomprehension and contempt.

The pushback to Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Public Seminar article “Hillary Clinton is a Centrist Liberal and an Establishment Politician: She is Not the Enemy”, is a good case in point. Full disclosure: I agree with Isaac on the fundamentals of his piece, especially with his extended criticism of FBI Director James Comey’s “October Surprise” letter to members of Congress. Comey’s actions are either clueless beyond belief or (easier to believe) a nakedly political act, designed to placate Right-wing Republicans and/or influence the election. And I also share Isaac’s implication that, while opting for the “lesser of two evils” is frustrating and distasteful, it is often enough necessary.

Yet it was interesting, however, to sift through the many critical reactions to and impassioned defenses of Isaac’s piece. Many asserted that, given Hillary Clinton’s actions in Central America and the Middle East, her coziness with Wall Street, and her prior support of TPP, does make her an enemy to the Left, and that even conditional support of her candidacy is a form of fatal compromise. Many others counter-charged that taking a false high-ground and affirming a “moral equivalence” between the neoliberal-establishment Clinton and the proto-fascist-anti-establishment Trump is just self-satisfied feel-good posturing, a sure sign of middle-class privilege. And then, after the gloves and all bets are off, everybody discovers their inner troll.

The Left again risks doing what it all too often does best, i.e., perfecting its auto-destruction. I am sorely tempted to counsel “everybody chill and calm down.” But that would be too easy. For while the “moral equivalence” partisans are, I think, dangerously indifferent to the uniqueness of what’s at stake in this election, and what that uniqueness permits or even requires, there is one small kernel of truth in what they are insisting upon.

I suppose that unlike Isaac I am one of those who harbors serious misgivings about Hillary Clinton, misgivings that pertain to her economic neoliberalism and foreign policy hawkishness, traits she shares with many, if not most, of her fellow “establishment” Democrats. Even though her playing an insiders’ game of hardball during the primaries is common practice, the way she and the DNC marginalized Bernie Sanders irked me no end. While I worried about Sanders’s electability, I worried about hers as well – and still do, especially after Comey’s shenanigans, and the media’s nonstop celebration of trivia and spin the past week. (Back last spring, my first reaction, upon awakening after the New York Democratic Primary was held, was spitting a hearty “Oh shit” at the radio when it informed me that Sanders lost, and lost big.) But I try to keep a sense of proportion about such matters. I will pull the lever for Clinton not so much because I hate Trump, which I do, but because I think his election would constitute an objective threat to the United States’ body politic. And to paraphrase Isaac, I would make damn sure that I would not risk “giving credence to all of those young people — who read you, respect you, and learn from you, inside the classroom and outside of it — who cannot bring themselves to vote.” I’m not especially worried about them. My own experience with “millennials” (and how I hate that term!) has shown them to be savvy, and they know that while the lesser of two perceived evils is also indeed evil, it is also, indeed, lesser. Their idealism is characteristically strong and authentic, but it does not imply that voting strategically for a lesser evil is the secular political equivalent of mortal sin. Most twentysomethings I know recognize that you may have to eat a shit-sandwich today to avoid a force-fed shit-feast tomorrow. They are not sellouts, but not stupid either. (If any generation can be accused of stupidly selling-out, it is my own, the so-called “baby-boomers”, whose idealism often flickered out as soon as it no longer fed narcissistic needs.)

I think it is obvious that while there is not enough difference between the establishment wings of the two parties, it is insane to claim that there is no difference between them. There is plenty of difference, and a significant difference rendered stark by the 2016 Republican presidential ticket. For all the genuine faults and vices one can attribute to Hillary Clinton, it is clear that not only has their weight and volume been exaggerated by a cynical Right-wing media noise machine, but that they pale, exponentially, before those of Donald Trump.

Still, as Isaac points out, some members of the radical Left have joined the voices of the alt-Right in jeering that “she deserves everything she is getting” in the closing weeks of the campaign. As someone whose “practical identity” has long been that of a “polite radical”, to cop George Carlin’s phrase, I am as aghast as I am disheartened at that reaction, partly because it runs contrary to all the evidence, but mostly because that kind of self-righteous and self-indulgent Schadenfreude puts us polite radicals in the company of boors like Rush Limbaugh and Roger Stone. Certainly company I would not want to keep.

And yet . . . the prophets of “moral equivalence” are on to at least one thing: that one should not let “incrementalism” tempt us into a fake pragmatism, where ideals die a slow death-by-degrees by limiting oneself only to what is “do-able”. The maxim “do not let ‘the perfect’ prevent us from achieving ‘the good’” has an inverted twin: “do not let ‘the good’ lull us into forgetting ‘the better.’” We can do better than the establishment neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton.

But that’s not the issue at hand today, a week before the election. I find it hard to contemplate anything worse than the alt-Right nightmare that is Donald Trump. Ted Cruz’s Christian Dominionism comes close but, given the antics of the past year, no cigar.

What the stalwarts of the Left are missing, I think, is something central to the Left’s projects from its beginning: a conception of politics that does not assume its heart is caged in prevailing institutions, but insists that politics lives in the daily-life grind of democratic communities and the space provided by a democratic public sphere. I think that this conception of politics underlies Isaac’s essay, as well as one of the objects of his criticism therein.

Read in a cooler hour, I do not think Adolph Reed Jr.’s essay “Vote for the Lying Liberal Warmonger: it’s Important” is, as Isaac claims, potentially harmful in its strident critique of neoliberalism and Clinton’s “indispensable nation” foreign policy. Reed clearly sees a world of difference between Clinton and Trump, and is quite aware of the irrational and fact-free vilification of the former. Reed’s caustic rhetoric is employed in the service of what is ultimately a conciliatory message. Reed makes two valid and sound points that bear repeating in this context. First, the politics of “moral equivalence” and “bearing witness” miss a central aspect of the political sphere — that it is not an opportunity to play the saint or martyr:

[Those who endorse the politics of “bearing witness” believe 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. . .

Second, “bearing witness” glosses over the fact that a “politics of lesser-evilism” is made both possible and necessary by systems and structures of domination and injustice, and will not be reformed by “taking a stand” and refusing to vote strategically. Things will change only by prolonged and persistent organized action to change the systems and structures that promote “lesser evilism”, rather than rotating the people who occupy their empty slots:

[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 [for Sanders supporters], 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 . . . [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.). . . 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. [Emphasis mine.]

Reed’s point here is, I take it, that the task before the Left and other “polite radicals” is not to get angry, or despondent, or self-satisfied. It is to get organized. It is more than a bit ironic that Right wing ideologues like Glenn Beck get so agitated over the fact that Hillary Clinton’s political guru in the 1970’s was Saul Alinsky. Ironic, because the kind of establishment, top-down politics of which Clinton is  emblematic is at antipodes to Alinsky’s Whitmanesque, grass-roots idea of politics as a local practice, as bottom-up coalition-forming which holds the feet of the powerful to the coals and plants the seeds of democratic culture. This type of politics may be, in its own way, incremental. But it is also revolutionary, in that should those seeds sprout, the entire landscape of a polity might change and blossom forth.

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Michael Quirk

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