Politics in America I

Posted by sepoy on January 10, 2005 · 5 mins read

I cannot speak as authoritatively about politics in America as farangi did about religion in America. My interest in politics here - and my experience of it - is barely 10 years old. Sure, I have read my share of 19th and 20th century American political history but that is just that. Still, I claimed to have some thoughts on where we go from here. In a true sense, I am writing as the hypothetical anthropologist observing the Nacirema tribe.

The left in America seems to be an odd, twisted monster with many heads intent on devouring itself. There is not a single issue which either defines or unites them - and this is right after a bitterly contested election. The leadership of the DNC, the fight against A. Gonzales, the Social Security mess all point to a weak, ill-defined party that has no clue how to even mount an opposition on any real terms.

So what do we do?

What the Right has done so brilliantly is take over the local. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? may have flaws but it remains, for me, a clear-eyed look into the heart of the problem:

While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the vast and complex structure of conservative 'movement culture,' a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart anymore. There are foundations like the one operated by the Kochs in Wichita, channeling their millions into the political battle at the highest level, subsidizing free-market economics departments and magazines and thinkers like Vernon L. Smith. Then there are the think tanks, the Institutes Hoover and American Enterprise, that send money sluicing on into the pockets of right-wing pundit corps, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, and the rest, furnishing them with what they need to keep their books coming and their minds in fighting trim between media bouts. A brigade of lobbyists. A flock of magazines and newspapers. A publishing house or two. And, at the bottom, the committed grassroots organizers like Mark Geitzin and Tim Golba and Kay O'Connor, going door-to-door, organizing their neighbors, mortgaging their houses, even, to push the gospel of the backlash. And this movement speaks to those at society's bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all. Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue. [emphasis added]

What the liberals desperately need to emulate is the great conservative democratic experiment of bringing new blood at the lowest political level and upwards. To find new candidates for local or state offices in the business community, the law community, the housewives and real estate agents (the occasional bug-killer); to provide them infrastructure to raise money, to coordinate their nascent campaigns; to cultivate their political lives and thoughts and to subsume it all under the guidance of local political elites.

And to give them "an explanation of it all". A story, a myth, a religion that explains the world. America, left or right, stands devoutely and firmly in an anti-knowledge world. Bush is evil. Liberals are evil. Facts are only facts that support what we believe in. Knowledge is not objective. The world is not fair. These are the tenets of a new cult that looks askance at the market of ideas because it cannot trust or fathom it. Liberals used to have a stark reality. Equality. Justice. Peace. Social Responsibility. They don't anymore. Those battles are won but the war is being lost. They flounder around looking for something, anything to combat the intense ahistory of the Right in America.

They think, falsely, that the cult of personality will save them. Hilary or Obama or Byah or Biden. Nope. The liberals need a grassroot. The grassroot need a religion. There is one out there.


dani | January 10, 2005

i know you're using political short-hand to cram a lot into a little space, and there IS overlap, but "the left" and "the democrats" aren't reallly interchangeable. (the lines got especially blurry during the time leading up to elections, what with moveon.org and everyone else rallying around kerry out of a state of emergency but swearing that they really liked him...) i think it's quite possible that many on the left have given up on/ disassociated with the democrats and that accounts for a lot of disunity...also i don't think it's a parallel: i think that both 'the left' and the democrats actually tend to be more knowledge-based than the right, which could be their downfall. respectable journalists sputtered around for months, years even, listing appalling fact after appalling fact in disbelief, trusting in the power of those facts, of that knowledge, to reach and influence the popular mind. oops. i know you're trying to be a good, impartial anthropologist, but bush IS evil, and it's precisely the democrats' inability or unwillingness to articulate that strongly and unflinchingly (using plenty of help from facts and figures, the objective kind ) that got us in this mess in the first place. i can't think of a more beatable running mate than bush. it's like running against the fucking creature from the black lagoon. everything he has ever touched has turned to shit for the average american and there are many, many ways to prove it statistically, without being a raving partisan lunatic. the grassroots really needs the balls and the means to combat the barrage of bullshit and communicate to the whole country what's really happening in a way that is not threatening or reactionary but matter of fact and confident. liberals aren't sitting around congratulating themselves on their virtue, they're spinning off in morose, defeatist analysis of what it all MEANS (present company excluded of course). facts, if disseminated, could go a long way. not with the born-agains, who would vote for jack the ripper if he said he loved jesus. but with the millions of regular folk who simply believed the hype. besides, some dude at the central voting computer just hit backspace a couple of times in all the right places. to me the real anthropological study would be finding a time in american history when resignation and cynicism reigned as supremely as they do now.

sepoy | January 11, 2005

dani: ""the left" and "the democrats" aren't reallly interchangeable" - that is exactly my point. "The Right" and "the conservatives" and "the republicans" are always interchangeable in leftist discourse. When similar fissures exist on the other side. However, the Right has successfully sold a grand narrative that unifies their discourse. The left, instead of questiong that narrative buys it and then tries to fight this leviathan. But, more later.

Saurav Sarkar | March 26, 2005

I'm glad your worried, but you should take solace in the fact that many, many other people on the "left" have developed this analysis over the past few months/years. I mentioned this in the more recent post on this topic, but you should take a look at Twilight of Equality by Lisa Duggan to balance out Thomas Frank's perspective--she talks about "upward distribution of [power]" over the past 20 someodd years, but doesn't go as far over to the class politics side. I think it is important to separate out the left outside of electoral politics and that within it (as well as all the shades of gray) because we need to adopt different strategies. A frequent mistake I've made is not to appreciate this and asked for rabidly anti-rightwing politians (instead of, say, a charismatic progressive who understands how to communicate with White working class people, among others). Other people make similar mistakes in endorsing advocacy or organizing efforts that are too accommodationist in nature. I think there's a lack of recognition that we have to play offense and defense simultaneously and both effectively, and to figure out how to make sure the balance is effective. In my opinion, in order to develop a real "left" movement in the U.S. (which is only at the beginning stages), we need to focus more on building power among people directly affected by issues and organizing them while running politicians that can minimize the damage until we have enough power to take back the political debate.

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