What are political parties for?

Click on the image below to see Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles in readable form.

This suggests a different view of US politics than did one of his recent (th)ink comics:

The whole premise of the first comic that the Republicans and Democrats in official Washington might be expected to “solve America’s problems.”  I see no evidence that either party is interested in doing anything that could meet this description.  On a whole range of issues, the two parties are much closer to each other than either is to the mainstream of US public opinion.  In regard to trade policy, tax policy, health care, foreign policy, labor law, immigration, etc, the two parties represent a coordinated program to subsidize capital ownership and penalize wage labor.

The premise of the second comic is that the Republicans’ main goal is to attack the Democrats and that there is no point in the Democrats’ attempts to work with them.   If this is true, and if it is also true that the Democrats represent something good, then a Democratic leader who said that his or her party’s chief goal was to rid Washington of Republicans  would not be neglecting “America’s problems,” but tackling one of America’s biggest problems.   I don’t doubt that Knight sincerely believes that that Republicans are hopelessly bad, and that the Democrats are far better.  I am surprised that he doesn’t accept that Senator McConnell and his supporters are equally sincere in the contrary belief.


  1. lefalcon

     /  November 28, 2010

    Well, I think it’s pretty easy to knock any expression of partisan Democratic support as “naive.” The simple fact is that US politics is like a sporting event with two teams. You can’t very well root for a team that’s not even participating in the game. Short of joining a quixotic third-party crusade or becoming apolitical altogether, there’s not much else for the regular person to do except support the Democrats.

  2. acilius

     /  November 28, 2010

    I don’t think I can agree with you. How did the Right come to hold such a dominant position in our public life today? Not by resigning themselves to support the Republicans no matter what they might do. Instead, they have always kept fighting to move the Republican Party further and further to the Right, and have never hesitated to threaten to withhold their support from Republican leaders who have flirted with moderation. That’s the way to be effective. Let them take your vote for granted, and you might as well stay home.

  3. lefalcon

     /  November 28, 2010

    Well, first of all, you’re skating on pretty thin ice when you start using words like “sincere” in sentences describing machine politicians. In fact, your critique of Keith Knight as far as I can make out seems to revolve around Knight somehow unreasonably denying the great “sincerity” of Mitch McConnell and similar congressional blowhards? I agree that Knight is a bit naive in his Rodney King-style call for bi-partisanship. But what else is there to call for? Rabidly partisan intransigence on both sides?

    And your comment seems to contain a weird echo of Tea Party “talking points.” Who in the world do you think “the Right” is? Believe me, this “Right” that you’re talking about has nothing to do with me or you or anybody in society who lives an approximately “normal” life. In that light, if you’re intending to make some sort of call to grassroots “civic duty” in the form of voting and sashaying around with little placards or something, it strikes me as quite ridiculous. Yes, of course the political establishment is rightwing across the board. But that has nothing to do with the righteous indignation of legions of rank-and-file citizens. So I’m utterly baffled.

  4. lefalcon

     /  November 29, 2010

    Now that I’m thinking of it again, maybe by “Right” you mean the corporatist establishment, not rightwing voters? But it hardly seems likely that people with little leftist placards will bring down the establishment by displaying the same obdurate intransigence as mega-corporate power brokers who command virtually limitless resources.

  5. acilius

     /  November 29, 2010

    Well, there’s always been a corporatist establishment on the USA. The thirteen states that signed the Declaration of Independence were for-profit corporations before they were colonies. But our political options haven’t always been so limited as they are now. As recently as the 80s, a mass movement stopped the USA from committing to a full-scale war in Nicaragua, and genuinely populist politicians had real influence in Washington on a wide range of issues. If we want to get back to a situation where those things can happen again, we have to use the strategies that have been proven to work.

  6. lefalcon

     /  December 11, 2010

    And what pray tell might be these “strategies” of yours? (I think we’ve just circled back to the beginning of the conversation.)

  7. acilius

     /  December 13, 2010

    That’s a pretty big question. You might phrase it as: What strategies has the Right used to gain its current stranglehold on the US political system, and how can Americans of other views imitate those strategies to break that stranglehold and restore a competitive political system?

    Obviously, that’s too big a question to answer in a comment on a blog post. One thing I would suggest is that when we hear Democratic politicians defending the various deals they make with Republicans in the course of their work, the first question we should ask is how the Republican Right would react if the positions were reversed. So if a Republican president accepted a tax deal that was as much in line with Democratic policy positions as the deal Mr O recently accepted was in line with Republican positions, would his party go along with that deal cheerfully? Just look at the reception George H. W. Bush met when he signed the 1990 tax law and you have your answer. As it was Bush’s critics who won control of Congress in 1994 and had their way throughout his son’s presidency, we would have to say that their political strategies are the ones that work. So people who are serious about changing this country will learn from them, not from the bipartisan consensus builders.

  8. lefalcon

     /  December 14, 2010

    I don’t quite get what you’re meaning when you talk about things like “the right” or “the Republican right.” There are rightwing voters, most of whom are dupes, propagandized into voting against their own interest. There are rightwing politicians, bought and paid for by their corporate overlords. And then there are the corporate overlords themselves. Obviously, it is the last of these three components that constitutes of the engine of this construct we might call The Right. The same structure exists on the left.

    What I’m finding confusing is that this left-right bifurcation would more aptly be characterized as Right A vs. Right B … since the so-called “left” wing of the political establishment is (in a seeming paradox) actually just a bit different – or slightly more moderate – version or flavor of The Right Proper. So I’m unaware that there are many (any?) options available to “the populist left,” since this “populist left” essentially exists outside the sphere of the political establishment and possesses no corporate backing. Therefore there’s really no way for it to wield the leverage by which it could engage in the sort of “enforcer” tactics you’re advocating. Heck, I wish it could. But short of Nader’s concept of a powerful consortium of hyper-rich benefactors that would thrust the populist left to viability, it seems there is not jack shit to be done.

  9. acilius

     /  December 14, 2010

    I think that at each level of political engagement, people who are dissatisfied with the choice between Right A and Right B should look at what their right-wing counterparts have done over the last few decades to create this situation. So, when Mr O sells out to the far right on taxes, the war, secrecy, civil liberties, etc etc etc, average voters should look at what right-wing voters have done when Republican politicians haven’t given them their way. Likewise up and down the system, activists, contributors, candidates, etc, all should ask themselves what their rightist counterparts have done to gain their position and emulate them as closely as possible.

    Certainly the fact that the Right speaks for the rich gives them a financial advantage, and a psychological advantage inasmuch as most people would like to identify with the rich. But again, that has always been the case, while it has not always been the case that the only options before American voters are Right A or Right B. There have been times when the owners of capital have held an even tighter grip on the political system than they do now, as for example in the late nineteenth century. And yet movements have always begun in those times that presented the corporate oligarchs with serious challenges, and the voting public with serious decisions. So I’m very far from agreeing that “there is not jack shit to be done.”

  10. lefalcon

     /  December 14, 2010

    Well, nobody can demonstrate that the situation is 100% hopeless, short of having crystal ball capabilities. Just to repeat my basic idea: When it comes to voting (which is supposed to be our classic way of participating in the political process), the options are: [a] vote for the less stringent rightwinger (generally the Democratic candidate in a given race), [b] vote for a third-party candidate who will assuredly lose, or [c] don’t vote. There may be additional options for persons prepared to become involved in political activism…but for regular people, the gap between the situation just described versus “there isn’t jack shit to be done” is rather a slender gap indeed. I see very little to be gained from corny promotional campaigns with slogans like “Rock The Vote!,” whose main function is not to cultivate political or social consciousness–but rather to anesthetize the public by sending them home with a shiny sticker that says, “I Voted Today!” (They forgot to add the words, “…in a sham election that is a parody of any actual democratic process.”)

    I believe the Republican-voting segments of the public deserve very little direct credit for pushing the overall political establishment further to the right. Big business simply purchased their votes by means of pouring money into its propaganda machine. It’s not like “good ol’ grass roots organizing” is what got Republican voters to the polls. So I’m unsure how populist leftists can profitably emulate their pleb counterparts on the Right(s A & B).

    Greater political / social consciousness did exist during earlier periods of US history. But it was possible in large part because the technological means for pervasive mind control were not yet in place. Today the situation is quite different: The majority of people are just not capable of recognizing the truth—even if it bit them on the ass. And that situation could only really be altered in one possible way: with vast amounts of money, i.e. resources on a scope not available to anyone except the corporatist overlords. The only other plausible scenario I can come up with would be: Economic conditions become so grievous and standards of living so low, that the public becomes less susceptible to propagandistic influence. I’m not advocating that we dispense with all hope, but I am advocating that we be relatively realistic about what would be needed to effect substantive change in US political life.

  11. acilius

     /  December 14, 2010

    Actually I do think that grass-roots organizing has been a big part of what’s given the rightwardmost elements of the Republican Party a voice so much louder than their numbers would warrant. Not the whole reason, of course, but a big part.

    I’d also defend the option of voting for a third party candidate. If you don’t vote, the two parties will very quickly decide that you aren’t going to vote again. And if you vote for a party that doesn’t represent you, they’ll take you for granted. But if you vote for a candidate who does represent your views, all that candidate has to do is receive more votes than separate the top two finishers and your vote will be noticed. Remember Washington’s fixation on courting the “Perot vote” in 1993, and the Democrats’ anti-Nader hysteria in the Bush-Cheney years.

    As for new communications technology, no doubt it does arm the corporatist elite with many new weapons of mind-control. But then it also equips the rest of us with some armor. A blog like this may not be a mighty voice for democracy, but people can keep in touch with each other and build up networks more readily than they could before. There’s no reason the power elite should be the only group strengthening their position based on that.

  12. lefalcon

     /  December 15, 2010

    Well, obviously a conversation like this is so general it could go on indefinitely. I do think it’s ridiculous to say there’s substantively more grass roots activism on Right A than on Right B or the populist left, if that’s what you’re saying. I mean, there are plenty of “loud voices” all around; it’s just that some get picked up and magnified by getting plugged into media contexts by the corporatist overlords.

    It seems like the two established parties are constantly going through these cycles where it is proclaimed that they are “being destroyed!” or “being reborn!” This business about destruction and rebirth has become by now so threadbare of a trope, it’s a wonder the electorate isn’t just committing suicide in droves.

    Yeah, I’m sure the third party stuff will continue to have its role in US politics in years to come. The difficulty I see there is that these third parties (Perot, Nader) are quite handily relegated to Oblivion. And if a third party did become a serious contender (e.g., the stupid “Tea Party”), it would be cynically jujitsu-ed into a distorted, watered-down parody of itself…(although I am literally incapable of imagining what a _parody_ of the Tea Party could possibly look like!). In other words, any serious third party contender will be automatically de-fanged, domesticated, and made into an obedient lapdog of corporatism…or eviscerated. Any other scenario is pure fairyland.

    Technology is a great way to expeditiously communicate about what a hopeless, tawdry pile of rat shit we’re confronted with. In short: You don’t need to give up all hope; just inhale the stench deeply, or invest in a gas mask. Do otherwise and you’re indulging in pure vanity.

  13. acilius

     /  December 16, 2010

    “I do think it’s ridiculous to say there’s substantively more grass roots activism on Right A than on Right B or the populist left, if that’s what you’re saying.”

    That is what I’m saying. If you look at the path that took our country to the near-one party state of recent years, I’d say that one of the biggest factors was the decline of organized labor. I remember that when I was a teenager it was not at all unusual to see guys in union jackets going door-to-door campaigning for various causes. When the unions went down, nothing rose up to take their places as organizing grounds for pro-worker grassroots efforts. That leaves the field of grassroots activism chiefly to the religious right and corporatist booster groups.

    At the same time, of course, capitalists also changed their politics. The rise of globalism radicalized the owners of capital. Where in the 80s the National Association of Manufacturers joined with organized labor to push the Reagan administration to protect American industry from low-wage competition, nowadays the NAM is a reliable booster for every so-called “free trade” pact designed to construct a world where capital knows no homeland. I’m not saying that a revival of populist grassroots activism all by itself could force the owners of capital to become patriots again, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

    As for third parties, you’ve just got to stick with them. I deeply regret voting for John Kerry over Ralph Nader in 2004, and for Mr O over Nader in 2008. If all of us who voted for Nader and LaDuke in 2000 had refused to vote for the Democrats until they nominated a candidate who was serious about standing up for this country and its people, we would eventually have started costing them elections. That’s the only way to get noticed.

  14. lefalcon

     /  December 16, 2010

    Well, yeah, but I just find it very telling that in your discussions about third party movements, you refer to “getting noticed” like it’s the trophy we’re all struggling for. Sure, third party movements can problematize election dynamics for the major parties. But their ineluctable fate is to be co-opted or incinerated. Yes, they are noticed quite vividly…in the very process of being brought ignominiously to their knees. Yes, they are quite pointedly noticed while they drop cringingly in adulating concession to the corporatist establishment. That is their fate; that is God’s Law. I’m also rather skeptical about the efficaciousness of converting capitalists, or anyone, to Patriotism. My experience has been that whenever an individual stands out as particularly vile, you can start counting the moments until they start proclaiming about their slimy, simpering “patriotism.” Patriotism may have hundreds of definitions, but when patriotism is inflected on the plane of actual behavior, nothing could be more emblematic than a so-called “patriot” plunging a knife into the back of an innocent person. I can imagine no more frightening circumstance than to be trapped in a stalled elevator with a patriot.

  15. acilius

     /  December 17, 2010

    Getting noticed is only the first step, but it’s an indispensable first step. You can’t affect policy-making unless policy-makers are aware of you.

    That reminds me of another thing I think about a lot. Several years ago I heard that the average member of the US Congress spends 6 hours a day raising money. That’s year-in, year-out, not only during election season. I’m sure that figure has only gone up in recent years. How many of those 6 hours a day do they spend talking to average working people? As little as possible, I’d wager; they want to get hold of the people who’ll respond to an unsolicited phone call from someone they’ve never met by writing a $1000 check.

    So the system that requires candidates to beg for money requires them to spend a big chunk of each day flattering the rich. Add to that the amount of time they spend with each other, with their staffs, with lobbyists, with senior officials, with reporters, and with their families, and you have very little time left over for them to spend with anyone who is not a member or a hanger-on of the power elite.

    Since congressmen spend so little time with working people, the concerns of working people must seem very remote and abstract to them. That’s why we need organizations that will enable us to give them a good swift kick in the ass on a regular basis and remind them who they work for.

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