'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, April 04, 2011

Vote or Die (Part 10) 

It has been awhile since I have posted on the subject as to whether the US political system provides any meaningful opportunity for participation for the vast majority of the populace. I have periodically elaborated on this theme in posts entitled Vote or Die, an sarcastic reference to someone here who commented that the choice in the 2008 election was either death or voting for Obama. If you are interested in persuing my previous posts about it, you can find some of them here.

Last week, I encountered this Democracy Now! interview with Ari Berman about the selection of Jim Messina as Obama's 2012 campaign manager that prompted me to briefly revisit this topic:

AMY GOODMAN: New York Times saying the nation’s top Democratic contributors were given an ambitious set of marching orders on Thursday, yesterday, with a select group of 450 donors each asked to raise $350,000 before the end of the year. If all members meet their goal, the tally from this one group alone would be $157 million. A new goal will be set next year, expected to be much higher.

ARI BERMAN: Well, the Obama campaign wants to raise a billion dollars for this campaign. And in these events, you know, they’re not public. The names are not released. We don’t know who these donors are. We don’t know what promises are being made. Maybe they’re all just doing it out of the goodness of their own heart, but my feeling is, if you’ve got all these donors in a room, it would be a very different configuration of people than all the small donors who helped power the Obama campaign in 2008.

Leaving aside Berman's apologia for the 2008 campaign, which was as reliant upon the bundling of large corporate donations as any other previous campaign (he is, after all, affiliated with The Nation), his remarks raise a number of challenging questions. What is the point of participating in a political campaign as either a donor or a grassroots campaign volunteer, or, for that matter, even as just a voter on election day, if the campaign is centered around raising a billion dollars from wealthy, well connected donors? How could anyone delude themselves into believing that they could achieve any of their political goals through such an activity? It is about as plausible as a group of ancient Egyptian slaves believing that they have something to say about how the pyramids should be constructed. It is now evident that one of the great, enduring successes of the 2008 Obama campaign was the destruction of the campaign finance system, which provided the illusion of constraints upon the involvement of large capital interests.

But Berman also provides some insight into another related question as well. How was it that one of the most idealistic political campaigns in recent memory, evocative of JFK and RFK, subsequently degenerated into a presidency of expediency without any meaningful protest? Berman provides the answer:

JUAN GONZALEZ: And with these progressive groups, there was a weekly meeting, every Tuesday, Common Purpose. Could you talk about how Messina dealt with that group and what it is?


JUAN GONZALEZ: Because most people across the country don’t even—have never heard of it.

ARI BERMAN: Yeah. There was this group set up called the Common Purpose Project, which really was supposed to be the gathering where administration officials would brief progressive groups. Big progressive groups like MoveOn.org, labor unions, AFL-CIO, SEIU, Planned Parenthood, all the gamut of progressive groups in Washington, inside and outside of Washington, would be at these meetings. And there was supposed to be a back-and-forth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And they’d meet every Tuesday?

ARI BERMAN: They’d meet every Tuesday evening at the Capitol Hilton in Washington. But what Messina did is he really tightly controlled the discussions, and it was very much a one-way mode of doing business, where he said, This is the strategy. Go support it. And what it was supposed to be, it was supposed to be a back-and-forth. And there was supposed to be outside mobilization by progressive groups on things like healthcare, on things like gay rights. That was the whole purpose of the Common Purpose Project.

But really what happened is Messina and the White House, Rahm and other people, demobilized these progressive groups, took them out of the equation on things like healthcare, didn’t want them talking about a public option, didn’t want them criticizing Max Baucus. And that had a very detrimental effect when the Tea Party exploded, and there was all this mobilization on the right and none on the progressive side.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he would threaten to not—to disinvite you if you didn’t go along with the program?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to be at these meetings, you had to be in line, you had to be with the administration. If you weren’t, you would not be invited, or you’d be excommunicated. It was very much a take no prisoners style. Messina has a take no prisoners style; the problem is, the people he’s often taking prisoner are Democratic activists and grassroots organizers. And that’s why Obama supporters are worried about his role in 2012.

Of course, the problem is much greater, much more profound than whether Jim Messina serves as Obama's 2012 campaign manager, more profound, in fact, than whether Obama wins reelection. Without acknowledging it, Berman exposes an institutional breakdown in American progressive politics, one in which organizations that sought to facilitate a generational transformation of the country in a more humanitarian, egalitarian fashion, embraced a new mission, however reluctantly, to rationalize the militaristic, neoliberal policies of the Obama administration as consistent with their espoused ideals. Not surprisingly for someone associated with The Nation, which is, of course, the house organ for this bankrupt political perspective, he excuses them on the ground that it was Messina's fault. I mean, for chrissakes, he threatened to disinvite them! What else could they do except bow down before such a bully? Instead of holding these groups accountable for their craven abandonment of their supporters, he peddles the pathetic explanation that Messina and the White House, and Rahm demobilized them. If so, it was a demobilization that they were all too willing to accept. As for the rest of us, we are, as the old protest song says, on our own.

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