Sunday, January 17, 2010

Elections and myth

I write on the eve of a Massachusetts election which may, unfortunately, be an historic one. After winning the primary, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Martha Coakley, seems to have taken the general election for granted; now, surprisingly, she finds herself in a neck-and-neck horserace with Republican Scott Brown. If Brown wins, the Senate Democrats will immediately lose any hope of breaking a filibuster; health care reform (even in its current, deformed state) will be finished, and so will any future initiative that President Obama is likely to make. It will also probably foreshadow further Democratic losses in the midterms, and likely a one-term presidency for Barack Obama. (Brown will be a one-termer, too. The progressive machine in Massachusetts will gear up belatedly, and almost certainly oust him in the next election; but a lot of damage will be done, by then.)

If Brown wins this election, it will be a wake-up call to the Democrats, but one which, like a den of opium addicts trapped in a fevered, collective dream, they probably won’t hear. The message they will hear, the message they always hear in their deluded dream state, is that when the other side wins, the Democrats need to become more like them. What the people will really be saying is: they need to be different.

Obama rode in like a hero, in the election of 2008, like a knight in shining armor for many Americans. We have two kinds of folk-tales about heroes. A hero can storm the palace gates, free the imprisoned damsel, and all will live happily ever after. Or a hero can make a vain last stand, selflessly sacrificing everything in the struggle for righteousness, fighting to the bitter end for the people, never giving up while life remains. Either type of hero wins our loyalty, our admiration, and our love. What a hero cannot do is make nice with the forces of evil. A hero cannot give in, give away everything, even in a spirit of compromise, while winning only crumbs, or nothing, for the people in return. We have a word for that kind of behavior, and it is not “heroism”. It is “betrayal”.

Unfortunately, when we feel betrayed, we don’t always act in the most rational manner. When we are jilted by our lover (to switch my metaphor), we may not choose to be cautiously celibate until a more trustworthy candidate comes along. We may, instead, troll the bars to find some even less reliable lover “on the rebound”. This is especially true if our last lover acted in a way which has made us feel of potential partners that in some sad sense “they are all the same”. Thus, the American voter. If Brown wins, it will not be because the majority of voters who jump ship to vote for him have really understood and agree with his positions; most people in Massachusetts do not. It will be because they are feeling hurt, betrayed and jilted by the Democrats, and they want to show them a thing or two.

I may be accused of elitism for analyzing the electorate on the level of fairy tale and romance novel, instead of a hard calculus of interest and agency. Perhaps the charge is just; it is true that I think most people think politically on a level of myth and passion, and not by a rational consideration of costs and benefits. Of course the forces of interest and agency are always there; but between them is interposed an analysis, and the analysis is not always sound.

This is often as true of self-conscious, politically active, over-intellectualizing “lefties” as it is of the man or woman in the street. We are as likely as anyone else to want politicians to act, out of principle, as if they were our knights in silvered armor. We want politicians who refuse ever to compromise; but of course, we also want these finely principled men and women to prevail.

The trouble is, this assumes that there IS a principled choice – that absolute victory is possible. In politics, absolute victories are likely to be the victories of a Stalin, or a Pol Pot, and even then, they don’t last forever. (I rather suspect that if any politician managed to kill off all the people who disagreed with him, he would find himself all alone – and then start arguing with himself.) People are, and always will be, contrary and cooperative, greedy and selfless, stupid and smart. Differences of opinion, conflict, error are eternally and necessarily the stuff of politics, and compromise and back room deals are part of any political solution.

So should we just wash our hands of it? Refuse to have anything to do with such a dirty business? As Howard Zinn said, in the line that went into the title of his memoirs, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” a deliciously mixed metaphor by which he meant that you cannot NOT make a moral choice in politics; abstention has consequences as surely as a vote, a failure to act, when action is called for, leaves us as guilty as those who acted, yet made the wrong choice. There is no redemption in taking the moral high ground, if ceding the ACTUAL ground leaves people really worse off than if you had compromised. The great irony of politics is that unshakably holding the principled position is NOT the principled position.

The problem is one of strategy, and strategy is a problem of analysis of probable outcomes. Did you compromise too soon, and therefore give away too much? Did you compromise with the wrong people, when some other compromise might have won you a better ally, and a coalition strong enough to force a breakthrough? If you had refused to engage, and spent more time building your power, would you have eventually have been able to win a better resolution? Or would you only have given your enemy, also, more time to regroup? How many people would have been hurt while you waited, and would it have been worth the cost?

History can look at the outcomes, and decide if they were good or bad. It is much harder to decide if they were good or bad relative to the actual possibilities of the moment.

Nevertheless, I fear that President Obama did the wrong thing by starting his backpedalling, his compromising, his search for bipartisan solutions, so early in his term of office. He would have been better off (I think) to draw a line in the sand, and fight, vocally and aggressively, for whatever was best for the people. If he made compromises, he should have done so from a position of strength, and made certain that he really got some quid pro quo.

Obama should have done that not because compromise is an evil to be rejected on principle, but because, in this case, compromise was bad strategy. He might have lost these battles, but if he had played a bold role, struggling against the unrelenting Republicans, he might have stayed a hero. He might have convinced people that what was needed in Washington was MORE progressive Democrats, to break the gridlock, and not that it made no difference either way, because all politicians in both parties were after all the same. He might have been our Zapata, our Leonidas at Thermopylae, our Roland at Roncesvalles sounding his horn; instead, I fear he has come to be seen as our Benedict Arnold.

The political pundits do not agree with me. To them, losing is always bad, and anything you can call a victory, no matter how Pyrrhic, is always good. Perhaps they are right. In particular, they might be right as regards the career of the particular politician seen to be losing. But then, self-sacrifice is part of the nature of being a Roland – of being a hero. I’m pretty sure we won’t make a meaningful change for the better in this country, until we manage to elect some politicians who have more faith in the power of myth than does the typical Washington insider. And who knows? If they hold out courageously in the pass, they might be pleasantly surprised and find out that the grateful people call up the cavalry just in time.

Postscript, footnote, or what-have-you. I write the above, of course, as if Obama really wants to be a progressive President, but is constrained by circumstances, which (also) he may or may not have misjudged. This is one of the accounts currently being told to explain Obama’s behavior in office. Another is that he is in fact merely another pro-business neoliberal, who pretended to believe in community empowerment (which perhaps he really believed in, in his younger days), in order to win his own place in history. I make no pretense to knowing enough about the man, Obama, to know which of these accounts is true – possibly some mixture of the two.