Reflections on the Quadrennial Extravaganza

Wednesday, January 25, 2012, Chicago, Illinois. Published on ZNet. The presidential election year is here and along with it comes the quadrennial intra-leftist bloodletting on the unpleasant question of how to best respond to the narrow “choices” handed down by the nation’s corporate-managed one-and-a-half party system. I am aware of at least three different, often fiercely held left positions on this issue.

1. Hold your Nose and Vote Democrat to Block Republicans. This position holds that Republicans are so terrible that serious progressives should vote “for” the Democratic incumbent (however “disappointing” he may have been to liberal and progressive supporters) to block the G.O.P. Block the proto-fascistic Republican troglodytes and then work to push the Democrats to be more progressive in the next four years! One variation on the nose-holding counsel articulated by the leading radical intellectual Noam Chomsky in recent elections lets you protest vote for a third party presidential candidate (e.g. Nader) in “uncontested states” – states where one of the major party candidates already has an Electoral College victory sewed up before the election. Chomsky has advised leftists to vote Democratic in contested states on the grounds that the differences between the two leading business and imperial parties are not irrelevant to many disadvantaged people (more on this below). Those differences might seem small to privileged leftists but they matter to millions living at the bottom of concentrated power systems like the United States.

Key Caveat: “Before and After Those Two Minutes”  The Chomsky argument (as I have understood it) comes with a critical caveat. Voting for a left presidential candidate (in an uncontested state) or (in a contested state) for one of the two state-capitalist candidates is, the caveat holds, a tiny part of the deeper and more fundamental struggle for a real peoples’ politics. Chomsky’s longtime friend and ally the radical American historian Howard Zinn put it well in March of 2008, as the “election madness engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” (Zinn) with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…. Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”

Chomsky said something similar (and quite a bit more) on the eve of the 2004 elections. By Chomsky’s analysis in October 2004:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.” “Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…”

“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

2. “Vote Your Hopes Not Your Fears.” Since both of the dominant parties and their candidates are egregiously capitalist and imperial and we do (in most states) have the option of voting for third party left candidates, this position holds, serious progressives must always (even in contested states) vote outside the corporate duopoly. Always “vote your hopes, not your fears!” So what if this helps the Republicans? What difference would it make? The Democrats are just the other capitalist and imperial party. And they may actually be worse than the G.O.P. because they deceptively cloak the rule of the rich in the clothing of the supposed “party of working people.” There are fewer illusions and less confusion when Republicans hold nominal power, the argument runs. Liberals and progressives are more likely to take to the streets and protest when Republicans hold the White House.

3. Ignore/Boycott. The personalized “quadrennial extravaganzas” (Chomsky) that the masters stage for us are such potent exercises in bamboozling the citizenry and creating the illusion of democracy that the best thing is to ignore or perhaps boycott them. As the early 20th century U.S. left anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “if voting made any difference they’d make it illegal.” Don’t vote, it just feeds the whole dysfunctional spectacle. Again, so what if this helps the Republicans? What difference could it make? (See above, position #2).

Disillusioned With “Left Voting”

For what its worth, I have followed positions #2 and #3, voting for left presidential candidates or voting for nobody in both contested and uncontested states since 1980 (the first year I was old enough to mark a ballot). The fact that my vote or non-vote might indirectly help the Republicans has never exactly kept me up at night. Still, these positions don’t impress me very much at present for four basic reasons.

First, “left” candidates never have the slightest chance of making more than a tiny dent in the big media, big media elections system. That system is powerfully stacked against left contenders. Those contenders’ inevitably pathetic showing ends up reinforcing the false notion that left and progressive policy positions find little favor among the populace.

Second, Chomsky is right, actually, about small differences mattering for millions under systems of concentrated power. The fact that a corporate Republican president will attack the welfare state to a greater degree than a corporate Democratic president might seem like small potatoes to a radical intellectual claiming to advocate workers’ control, but it is not irrelevant to a deeply poor family that cannot afford to lose its Food Stamps, unemployment benefits, Medicaid or public family cash assistance. The fact that they know this to be true is part, I think, of why leftists who make the “better the enemy you know” argument don’t just take that argument to its ultimate logical conclusion by working actively for G.O.P. candidates.

Third, “serious political action” (Chomsky) is about building rank and file social movement power beneath and beyond staggered election spectacles.[1] The third party candidates I have punched ballot holes for during my two minutes behind the voting curtain in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008 have left amazingly little behind their campaigns in the way of social movement energy and development.

Fourth, while advocates of positions 2 and 3 are right to note that the Democrats are far better than the Republicans at co-opting progressives, they do nothing to disabuse citizens of the notion that the former represent a meaningful left alternative to the more explicitly plutocratic and war-mongering G.O.P. They may actually further that illusion, actually, because having Republicans in power reinforces many liberals’ and progressives’ false belief that the nation’s problems can be reduced largely to the fact that those Insane Evil Republicans are in charge. When the Republican trademark spoils as it did under George W. Bush in his second term, the ruling class remains free to generate the illusion of meaningful progressive change by pulling brand G.O.P from the shelf and putting the Democratic product out front for a while.

”This Policy or That Policy”

Perhaps I should just embrace the Chomsky version of position #1: hold your nose to block the GOP with the Democrat in contested states but do not confuse two minutes of voting with “serious political action.” I fully embrace the dictum about what constitutes “serious action” and “the urgent task” (movement-building beyond elections), but the overall position has its own moral deficiency. As Glenn Greenwald argued at a socialist conference in Chicago last summer, the price of Chomsky’s “small differences that matter in concentrated power systems” is not the only ethical calculus to consider in approaching the quadrennial voting dilemma. We must also weigh the cost of telling the Democrats that they and not the only other party that can actually defeat them (under the rules of the U.S. elections system) can count on our votes, pretty much no matter what they do. Listen to the following comment from Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic pollster, to the New York Times last spring on how progressive voters will line up with Obama no matter how far the president drifts because of how terrible the G.O.P is: “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates. So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.” Democratic operatives know that hatred of the Republicans will calm “whatever qualms” we in the “base” might have about “this policy or that policy” of the current corporatist and imperial killer in the White House, whose conduct was recently described in accurate and scathing terms by the brilliant left commentator John Pilger:

“Into shards of fucking dust go all the lives blown there by Barack Obama, the Hopey Changey agent of western violence. Whenever one of Obama’s drones wipes out an entire family in a faraway tribal region of Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, the American controllers in front of their computer-game screens type in ‘Bugsplat.’ Obama likes drones and has joked about them with journalists. One of his first actions as president was to order a wave of Predator drone attacks on Pakistan that killed 74 people. He has since killed thousands, mostly civilians; drones fire Hellfire missiles that suck the air out of the lungs of children and leave body parts festooned across scrubland.”

“….as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg had predicted, a military coup was taking place in Washington, and Obama was their man. Having seduced the anti-war movement into virtual silence, he has given America’s corrupt military officer class unprecedented powers of state and engagement. These include the prospect of wars in Africa and opportunities for provocations against China, America’s largest creditor and new ‘enemy’ in Asia. Under Obama, the old source of official paranoia Russia, has been encircled with ballistic missiles and the Russian opposition infiltrated. Military and CIA assassination teams have been assigned to 120 countries; long planned attacks on Syria and Iran beckon a world war. Israel, the exemplar of US violence and lawlessness by proxy, has just received its annual pocket money of $3bn together with Obama’s permission to steal more Palestinian land.”

 “Obama’s most ‘historic’ achievement is to bring the war on democracy home to America. On New Year’s Eve, he signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a law that grants the Pentagon the legal right to kidnap both foreigners and US citizens and indefinitely detain, interrogate and torture, or even kill them. They need only ‘associate’ with those ‘belligerent’ to the United States. There will be no protection of law, no trial, no legal representation. This is the first explicit legislation to abolish habeas corpus (the right to due process of law) and effectively repeal the Bill of Rights…”

“On 5 January, in an extraordinary speech at the Pentagon, Obama said the military would not only be ready to ‘secure territory and populations’ overseas but to fight in the ‘homeland’ and provide ‘support to the civil authorities.’ In other words, US troops will be deployed on the streets of American cities when the inevitable civil unrest takes hold.”

 “America is now a land of epidemic poverty and barbaric prisons: the consequence of a ‘market’ extremism which, under Obama, has prompted the transfer of $14 trillion in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street. The victims are mostly young jobless, homeless, incarcerated African-Americans, betrayed by the first black president. The historic corollary of a perpetual war state, this is not fascism, not yet, but neither is it democracy in any recognisable form, regardless of the placebo politics that will consume the news until November. The presidential campaign, says the Washington Post, will ‘feature a clash of philosophies rooted in distinctly different views of the economy.’ This is patently false. The circumscribed task of journalism on both sides of the Atlantic is to create the pretence of political choice where there is none.”

But so much for “this policy or that policy,” like, you know, the proto-fascistic abolition of habeas corpus or the violation of international laws against murderous and unprovoked aggression on innocent civilians, and the massive taxpayer-funded bailout and re-legitimization of the parasitic financial institutions that crashed the economy while tens of millions of Americans struggle against destitution without adequate assistance and millions languish behind bars in the racist mass incarceration system! “At least the current emperor isn’t a Republican!”

Progressives’ less-evil-ism bears some of the blame for the nauseating smugness of people like Mellman, who epitomizes elite Democrats’ basic attitude towards those who stand to the left of their party’s capitalist and imperial behavior: “screw ‘em, they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

 The Hope of More Disillusionment

But it happens that there’s another argument that leads us back in a dark and ironic way toward position #1. There’s a different and all-too-rarely heard radical case (it might deserve to be considered position #4) for wanting the Democrats to win that has nothing to do with thinking that they are progressive, nothing do with the Lesser Evil-ist “battered spouse syndrome,” and everything to do with exposing the corporate and imperial Democrats for what they really are. Left adherents of positions 2 and 3 are absolutely right to worry about the recurrent and longstanding role of the Democratic Party in co-opting independent rank and file social and political movements and folding popular energies back into the dominant order. But how are the Democrats best revealed as agents of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire? Which is better for development of the “serious political action” (autonomous, democratic, grassroots, and non-co-opt-able citizen and workers activism) beneath and beyond the “quadrennial extravaganzas” (Chomsky) and the “placebo politics” of the major parties, dedicated to “the pretence of political choice where there is none” (Pilger): (A) Republicans holding nominal power or (B) Democrats atop the symbolic ship of state?

The answer for me is B. It would be best, from a Left perspective, to get Obama back for a second term for two key reasons in my opinion. First and (at the risk of sounding insensitive) least significant from my perspective, the intensity of the corporate and social-conservative assault on the U.S. populace will be somewhat less severe under Obama’s second term than under Mitt Romney or New Gingrich’s first term. Second and more important for me (since the main task is to get a serious radical sociopolitical movement underway), the presence of another Republican in the White House will just encourage progressives and others to blame everything wrong in America on those terrible crazy Republicans. And that just leaves the elite power centers free to tamp down the resulting popular anger by bringing the Democrats back in the names of “hope” and “change” (the keywords of both Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign).

I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election for what might strike some as a strange reason. I hoped Obama would triumph at the polls[2] because I thought there was radical potential in U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing the aforementioned interrelated dictatorships under a Democratic administration and especially under a Democratic administration that seemed to offer special promise of progressive change. I wanted Americans (young ones above all) to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their expectations of transformation and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rule with the “dismal Dems” (Henwood’s term) at the nominal helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected to the reality that, to quote the Marxist commentator Doug Henwood nearly four years ago, “everything still pretty much sucks” when Democrats hold the top political offices – that the basic underlying institutional realities of capitalist and imperial rule stay the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff noted two years ago, “I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation….. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”

Here’s how Henwood put it in the spring of 2008 at the end of an essay that criticized, among other things, Obama’s subservience to big capital, Obama’s militarism, Obama’s disingenuous claims to be against the Iraq War, Obama’s “empty” slogans, Obama’s “fan club” (“he doesn’t really have a movement behind him”), and Obama’s denial of the extent of racial inequality in the U.S:

“Enough critique; the dialectic demands something constructive to induce some forward motion. There’s no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world – more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He’ll deliver little of that – but there’s evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed.”

“There’s great political potential in popular disillusionment with Democrats. The phenomenon was first diagnosed by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. As Wills explained it, throughout the 1950s, left-liberals intellectuals thought that the national malaise was the fault of Eisenhower, and a Democrat would cure it. Well, they got JFK and everything still pretty much sucked, which is what gave rise to the rebellions of the 1960s (and all that excess that Obama wants to junk any remnant of). You could argue that the movements of the 1990s that culminated in Seattle were a minor rerun of this. The sense of malaise and alienation is probably stronger now than it was 50 years ago, and includes a lot more of the working class, [who are] …really pissed off about the cost of living and the way the rich .are lording it over the rest of us.”

“Never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That’s not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist.”

 Henwood has been born out by the rise of the Occupy Movement, which fed heavily off of youthful disillusionment with Obama – a bursting of “hope” bubbles that fed disenchantment with the underlying profits system. Obama has been a great object lesson in the wisdom of something that the great American radical historian Howard Zinn used to say: “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

Henwood’s point still holds. Bringing back a Republican to the White House will simply reinforce the longstanding liberal claim that bringing Democrats back is the “cure” to the “national malaise.” We can’t simply avoid the confusion and co-optation created by the Democrats by indirectly voting in Republicans. We can’t dance around the Democrat Party problem. We have to go through it to transcend it.

Urgent Tasks Beyond the Electoral Mind Game

Whatever you decide, fellow left progressive, keep your eyes on the social movement prize. What you do or don’t do on Election Day is a tiny matter compared to what we can and must do together to build left movement capacity and presence beneath and beyond the major party, candidate-centered, and mass-marketed election spectacles. And please resist the temptation to engage in bitter, shame-based, lefter-than-thou finger-pointing with other progressives who do not agree with you on whichever of the three (or perhaps it is four) positions I have developed in this essay. Face it: the reigning U.S. political party and elections system is an epic plutocratic and imperial mind fuck: a corporate-managed fake democracy in which elitism masquerades as populism and state-capitalist authoritarianism wears the clothes of the common good. It is no simple matter to know exactly how to respond to the whole thing. It’s kind of like trying to determine which lane will get you the furthest in a crowded highway at the peak of rush hour. The system is set up to frustrate, marginalize, depress, and confuse. That’s the point. Whatever position you take, keep in mind that serious progressives struggle also for a different political highway altogether.[3] The changes they seek include fundamental transformation in the prevailing party and elections systems – changes that would (among other things) make it possible to vote someday for seriously progressive candidates without having to fear that doing to will absurdly redound to the benefit of the most explicitly reactionary wing of the Property Party.

Paul Street ( is the author of many books and studies, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2005), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at


[1] Who of the following two hypothetical citizens is the more praiseworthy progressive American: Person A, who read the many warnings a few other Left intellectuals and I penned on the pro-business and pro-military nature of Obama and who then voted for Ralph Nader (in either a contested or uncontested state) in November 2008, but who has done little since beyond preening on Facebook to make fun of “stupid liberals” and saying “Hey, don’t blame me, I voted for Nader…I knew Obama sucked from the start” …or Person B, who clings to foolish dreams of Obama and other Democrats as progressive actors but who nonetheless consistently also engages in serious activism through antiwar organizations, anti-foreclosure campaigns, the Occupy Movement and/or other substantive activities consistent with Zinn and Chomsky’s advice? I’ll pick person B every time. I am an atheist, but I’d much rather spend my time with God-fearing Christians who work consistently for peace and justice than with fellow atheists for whom life seems to be all about bitching and moaning, “clicky-clacking 24/7 on Facebook” (to quote a friend of mine on the self-destructive all-day behavior of certain ridiculous “online activists”) and other childish pursuits.

 [2] Thankfully I did not have to act on this ironic hope in the voting booth. A look at the relevant Des Moines Register polling data in late October of 2008 showed that my voting state of Iowa was already “safely” blue (Democratic), leaving me free to rcast one of the six votes that Ralph Nader got in the “progressive” 24th precinct of Iowa City.

[3] A progressive Democracy Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would include provisions for the full public financing of elections (on the principle of “no money private money in public elections”), free television advertising, open and multi-party candidate and issue debates, proportional representation (so that, say, 20 percent of the vote for the House of Representatives might translate into 20 percent of the elected positions in that body), shortened election seasons, strict regulation if not abolition of lobbyists, the end of gerrymandering, instant run off voting in presidential (and other) elections, and much more to bring the political process more closely in line with the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.”

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By | 2012-01-25T11:15:41+00:00 January 25th, 2012|Articles|