Montana Politics

Voting and the alternatives

Something Mark said recently got me thinking. The suggestion was that it was the militant left, the direct action groups who did not limit themselves to electoral means to achieve what they wanted, during the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement that pressured politicians into accepting this liberal movements.

I thought that was worth considering. I don’t believe it, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. On closer consideration, Mark has a point, but with limitations.

First – some of the most celebrated direct actions in recent times – such as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 – had the effect of giving more political power to their opponents. Though loud, attention-grabbing, and in many ways justified, the opponents of the Vietnam War nonetheless alienated most Americans because they weren’t acting through established mechanisms for achieving political change. The result? An expansion of the hated war, followed only much later by a clumsy, bloody withdrawal, with a presidency worth of attacks on Democracy for an encore.

As to Mark’s other example, the New Deal – it does seem very likely that FDR, or his more recalcitrant party mates were encouraged to support more liberal policies for fear of getting facing something worse from Huey Long or Father Coughlin. On the other hand, their bravery was probably also bolstered by the fact that they picked up another nine seats in the Senate in 1934, despite the fact that the unemployment rate was still above 20%. It was their electoral strength that made their continued progressive agenda possible, not merely fear of punishment or insurrection.

So, perhaps Mark has something of a point – activists unconcerned with the welfare of the Democratic party may be able to goad politicians into being more responsive and faster-acting than they are wont to be. However, they can also have the opposite effect in the event that they alienate the American people or sabotage the electoral position of the politicians more sympathetic to their cause.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Well, you sort of lost me right in the first line when you said “militant left.” I have never used that expression. If anything, I would say “organized” left. It’s not that there was a Father Coughlin raving on about FDR, but rather that labor was not just active in the workplace, but also publishing newspapers, spreading information, inculcating leaders and future leaders. By that means they were able to take their wide and diverse membership, and focus them.

    That’s how power works, that’s how the right wing works, and that is how the civil rights movement worked. That’s way labor is under constant attack from both parties – it is a powerful tool for organizing not just the workplace, but a political movement.

    Yes, LBJ was afraid of an uprising – there had already been one, so there you might refer to “militant,” but generally speaking, it was organized and focused power that brings about results. Rosa Parks did not just pop up one day – she was part of a much larger movement that had been forming and meeting and making strategy. If they only looked to voting to bring about results, they would still have their own water foundations.

    Voting can indeed be part of the focus, as it can indeed bring in nine new senators. But the key is, once elected, to hold them accountable. In 2006 Democrats took control of both houses running against the Iraq War, and once elected, continue to fund it. In 2008 they were given huge margins of control in House and Senate and the presidency, and did nothing with it. That is the very antithesis of power – dissipation using the Democratic Party as the means by which grievances are collected and then scattered to the wind.

    Re: 1968 and the Democratic Convention, I have written on many occasions that the anti-war protests did not stop the war. Rather, it went on into 1975, with Nixon managing to fracture the opposition by elimination of the draft. People like to focus on the 1960’s as a time of hippies and drugs and free love, and that certainly was there. But it was a time of awakening as well, with minds coming out from under thought control, and people forming organizations and movements to advance the environment, product safety, feminism, anti-nuclear and a host of other movements that came to fruition under Nixon. These were all things that he did not favor. It is said that he was tossing bones to movements. Why? (And more importantly, why does Obama never toss us a bone?)

    In terms of the violence we commit on the world, the only effect of the anti-war movement was to force that violence underground. The attack on Central America under Reagan had to be done almost entirely underground, as was the Afghanistan War of the 1980’s. That violence did not come to the surface again until 1991.

    I guess I need to focus my words better, as I am constantly hit with the message that voting is the end-all tool we have. If it is all we have, we have nothing. Iraqis under Saddam could vote. If voting does not threaten power, then it allowed to go on. Where voting would indeed threaten power, as with Pinochet in Chile, it is outlawed. Where it is effective, as with Aristide in Haiti, the results were quashed and the movement punished by both Bush I and Clinton.

    What we have right now appears to me to be an awakening, with disparate groups getting to know one another. Out of that will hopefully come a machine that educates, thinks, trains leaders, and focuses. Right now these people are emerging from the thought control regime, and are sleepy-eyed. The response of power is totally predictable – ignore, ridicule, infiltrate, and use police violence. What you see in the media is designed to marginalize the movement. It all means nothing. The movement, if it is to survive, will operate without the benefit of favorable press or the approval of the Democrats.

    Man, that was long. Sorry! I was going to write about this this morning anyway, and you changed my venue. If you want me to move this very long comment to my own website, I am happy to oblige. It is always a pleasure to engage in exchange with you, as you are thoughtful and draw on wide sources to form your outlook.

  • Militant left was poor diction – I think the best term would be the ‘organized, extra-electoral left’ – those portions of the left that dedicated to change outside the avenue of elections. The militant, or revolutionary, left would be only those activists who believe that change can come only with the extra constitutional dissolution of the current system.

    The former has a point, though they can blunder like anyone else. Strikes, sit-ins, protests, occupations, lawsuits, and the like can be successful in prodding an ideologically friendly political structure to more satisfactory action, or inhibiting the efforts of a hostile administration from carrying out their agenda.

    The latter, however, invariably damages their cause. They don’t want electoral progress – that would undermine their goal of extra-electoral revolution. This became pretty clear with the TEA party – where they focused on pressuring candidates, they achieved their goals. However, there were elements there that didn’t believe elections were going far enough. When you open-carry to a political rally, when you put crosshairs over candidates, when you associate with racial-purity enthusiasts, you’re not sending the message that you trust the political process, regardless of how loudly you proclaim your peaceful intentions, and that message damaged the Tea party substantially.

    That’s the danger with the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well. Right now they are in good shape and could have a positive impact on national policy and politics. However, that can all be jeopardized by the militant revolutionary elements that any successful people’s movement attracts. It won’t take much to make Occupy Wall Street the next Haymarket riot, and indeed that would be in the interest of the “1%”, conservatives in politics, and most radical elements of the revolutionary left. That’s the danger of it.

    And either way occupy Wall Street goes, their goals are not going to be better realized with more Republicans in office. Like I said before, Mark, Democratic ‘majorities’ in the Senate were not nearly as powerful as they appeared, because many of those Democrats were votes against Republicans, not for Democrats, in the over-represented states like Montana that are far more conservative than the Democratic party as it is understood by the rest of the country. It is by making them stronger, not weaker, that we can more effectively further our agenda.

    • We are again, to a degree, talking by one another. But to the idea of a militant left, if there is such an animal, it is a fraction of what is going on. Even to call it “left” oversimplifies, as it is people who don’t seem ideological. They are fed up, and are for once focused on on those who are really to blame. It is true that in the sixties there were splinter groups dedicated to violence. they were not the norm.

      Tea Party comparisons are inappropriate, I think, as that movement had the support of the oligarchs, who supplied agenda, signs,nbuses and TV coverage. That movement was born in a room with a big conference table.

      And it sounds like you equate organization with meeting, carrying signs, shouting slogans. That is nothing more than percolation. Hopefully it leads to organization, with the emergence of leaders, policy debates, and even a focus an affecting electoral politics. But in politics, elections are far less important than movements.

      Violence: Oakland was a police riot. the battle in Seattle way back when was a police riot, as was Chicago in 1968. These movements are easily infiltrated, and even when police instigate violence, as they did here in Denver, the demonstrators are blamed. Goes with the territory.

      Anyway, I hope I am seeing the beginnings of movement politics, long absent in our society. If so, it is a long long haul, and it will be an uphill struggle all the way.

      • Mark – you are excessively quick to dismiss the TEA party. Sure, it may have had monetary backing, but it appealed to real people. But its success came because it refused to put forth any leaders and was shy on specific policy, tactics the Occupiers copied – in a highly negative and scandal hungry media environment, leaders can be torn down and plans lambasted, but a random collection of people? Media exposure, but with no specifics to attack.

        But Occupy Wall Street is different in one respect – they are not looking to win elections or even influence them. They claim inspiration from Tahiri Square and the general strikes in Southern Europe. This is a dubious inspiration – the result of Egypt’s revolution is still unknown. and the general strikes have so far failed to accomplish anything, least of all decreasing unemployment. But it is a model that requires violence and confrontation. Where the TEA party was successful was in avoiding, for the most part, media coverage that was likely to offend mainstream Americans. They rallied to show their strength, but they focused primarily on winning support for elections, and they followed the law very carefully on most occasions. They gave the police no opportunity to start a confrontation. It is here that the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking a more dangerous route by encouraging confrontation, even if they are not instigating violence. Perhaps it will be effective. On the other hand, perhaps it will backfire on them. Time will tell.

      • I think that carrying guns to rallies is an opportunity to start a confrontation with police. If that don’t do it, what will?

        I am not dismissive of the Tea Party at all. All I am saying is that they owe their success to financial backing and favorable media exposure. Wherever two or more were gathered, there was Fox. Given genuine disenchantment, it follows that they would catch on, but the direction they took was favorable to the oligarchy, installing right wing extremists in Congress and governorships and state legislatures, who have since that time attacked public employee unions, social programs and overall government spending, advocating tax cuts for the wealthy but leaving war spending untouched. There are some credible people who joined the movement, but on the ground you will find no plan, no rational outline of objectives, but rather people whose brains are so addled by the incessant agitprop we’ve been subject to since 9/11 that they are incoherent. It is, in my view, nothing more than a well financed public relations stunt, an incorent movement manipulated by a very coherent overlord.

        The result of Egypt’s revolution still “unknown”? “Uncovered” would be more like it. It is still going on. The US, seeing Mubarak to be unsustainable, abandoned him after decades of support. But in terms of change, Egypt is still run by the military, and little has changed, which is why there are still monstrous demonstrations and protests, no longer covered in our media.

        I’m getting a sense of strained reasoning from you. One, you are saying that the mere act of gathering in protest encourages confrontation with police, which risks violence and which will then in turn destroy the movement. It is as if violence merely happens. But the violence we have seen so far has been instigated by the police, so while you are right that there mere act of gathering in protest did result in violence, you are missing the larger point that we are in a police state, which seems not to trouble you. If indeed we are in a police state where protest is met with violence, then structural change is in order. In the old Soviet Union, despite massive police force, protest did indeed bring down authoritarian regimes. So even though it a risky, growing protest has been shown to be effective.

        Your second thrust is that electoral politics by itself can bring about meaningful change. This is the “rinse and repeat” fallacy advocated by Singer, Kailey and others, and though time and again we see this not to be effective, we must keep trying. You seem unwilling to address the underlying structural problem, that our elections are privately financed so that credible candidates who really want change generally cannot get traction. What we get are carefully constructed campaigns like Obama’s that capture disenchantment, and then scatter it to the wind. Few people seem to notice, other than in a free-floating anxious kind of way, that Obama is further to the right in his policies than Bush, and the fact that is largest backers are on Wall Street doesn’t pop the bubble of his seemingly liberal personna. That is perception management par excellance.

        Generally I find your thinking to be a repetitive rehash of the slow change mantra which fails on its face because what change we have is in the wrong direction. It is perhaps true that the OWS movement will fail, as this regime is far better at thought control mechanisms than any Soviet state ever imagined, but I do not find your thrust, that we must continue to elect Democrats, and fail to punish them when they turn out to be Republicans in disguise, useful.

        • “I think that carrying guns to rallies is an opportunity to start a confrontation with police. If that don’t do it, what will?”

          Not really, because it’s a rally. Everything there was 100% legal. Now, bringing guns to a rally is pretty out there and I don’t think it helped their cause any. You show up to a rally, you dress up like a pirate or whatever, shout something incomprehensible, and go home. You’re not looking to get into trouble with the police.

          When you sit in a place, when you occupy it continuously, when you intentionally disrupt the business of the city, you are trying to get into trouble, even if you don’t instigate it.

          If using the police to break up mass occupations makes us a police state, then every state in the world is a police state. What’s the alternative? Change policy every time a hundred thousand people get together to protest? At least electoral politics requires that corporations buy a whole election, a majority of the population. It’s much easier to drum up an occupation, a general strike, and use it to change policies or even governments you don’t like. Ask Kermit Roosevelt Jr.

          And so, if occupying Tahiri square was a complete failure as you suggest, how on earth should Occupy Wall Street expect to bring about real change? And where is your evidence that Obama is to the right of Bush? You say that a lot, but it makes little sense.

          And since you need evidence that elections make a difference: in 2009, with a Democratic House, Senate, and White House, we got over 400 billion dollars in deficit spending directly invested into the economy. In 2011, with a Republican house, no such luck. Again, that might not make any difference to you, but as someone who actually worked those jobs, I’m here to tell you it makes a difference. So, between having a job next year, and not, I’m going to vote for Democrats and a job.

          • Again, you are talking about rallies and occupations as if they were the point of Occupy Wall Street. Whoosh! Again, it is a movement that is hopefully in percolation stage, and hopefully out of the occupation and demonstration stage will come communication, organization, leaders, vision, and power.

            Does breaking up a rally make us a police state? The term, which I used with purpose, is a ‘sum of the evidence’ argument. The USA PATRIOT ACT, wiretaps and monitoring of legal behavior, inability to travel or enter public buildings without being frisked, training of police as military units rather than for public protection, and yes, using violence to break up legal and peaceful public demonstrations … the sum total of all of this is a police state. We are a police state.

            I did not say that Tahiri was a “complete failure.” Through the propaganda lens here, it was a huge success, as a bad guy was drummed out of office by popular protest. The reality is different – he was a US client, widely reviled but kept in office by the US, much as the Shah was in Iran, and Washington only reluctantly abandoned him after it was apparent he could not be sustained. Then Washington assumed a different tack, which was to celebrate the regime change but work behind the scenes to assure that military control of the country was still maintained.

            It’s a work in progress, hardly over, hopefully just beginning, but for now Egypt is still a military dictatorship, protests are still gong on, but are no longer covered in the US.

            If I had a nickel for every time that someone said Democrats did this or that that Republicans would not have done, I’d have a roll of nickels. If that is how your mind works, fine. It only means that for all of my effort to help you understand that the driving force in politics is that part of the iceberg that is hidden, not a word has sunk in. If you really believe that voters (busy, indifferent, uneducated, unfocused and trusting of their parties) who are the driving force in politics, then I leave you to your world. I cannot change your perceptions.

  • Matthew, what’s missing from your post is recognition of how the Dem party has changed since 1968. See: The lack of a unifying theme speaks to how the coalition structure of the Dem party’s jar of disparate marbles that use to hang together in the same jar are now spilled out on the floor with no particular attracting force to bring them together. “What’s in it for me” is hardly a propelling force to stand with a candidate that cannot serve all interests.

  • Well, that’s true Craig. And frankly, the Democratic position has always required more vision, because it is not aiming at returning to a model that has already existed, but envisioning a new system. Take health care – sure, we can attack the current system, but we know that there are currently no death panels, at least, not government run ones. So, Republicans merely need to argue that things must stay the same, or that they must return to a mythical previous state of being. It is the same for many issues – anyone wishing to reform our system of elections, the way we deal with immigrants, our foreign policy, has to deal with the fact that any proposal for change is immediately subject to wild speculation as to its effect, and the most spectacular hypotheses (death panels, the immigrant reconquista, etc.) get the most media coverage.

    So, Democrats can no longer inspire effectively with grand visions, and thus they are limited to fighting on individual issues, pandering safely to different groups. And that is indeed a hard thing to do, given all the different groups they have to try to pander to.

    • Matthew are you sure? Steve Forbes has a different perspective:

      The Department of Health and Human Services’ Death Panel

      This article originally appeared in the Nov. 21, 2011 issue of Forbes magazine.

      We already have one. It’s called the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a committee of “experts” appointed by the Department of Health & Human Services. This group recently de-clared that men should not be routinely screened for prostate cancer. The most common test is the PSA, which is part of a blood test. The panel also said no to rectal exams and ultrasounds, claiming that testing does no good, that it doesn’t save lives.

      Two years ago this task force said wom-en under the age of 50 shouldn’t get annual mammograms—a “finding” so preposterous even the Department of Health & Human Services ran away from it.

      This latest dictate is meeting the same fate. And rightly so. After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer found in men. Last year it killed 32,000 people in the U.S. The panel’s tortured reasoning is that oftentimes traces of cancer in the prostate don’t lead to a full-blown attack that can kill the patient. True enough, as far as that goes. But the panel ignored the inconvenient fact that physicians have a measurement called the Gleason score to determine how dangerous the disease is. If that score is low doctors will take a watchful attitude; if it gets high they’ll recommend action.

    • PSA’s are unreliable, Craig. This is a policy discussion carried on for valid reasons, that current methods for screening for prostate cancer are not effective. It’s interesting if you follow it closely. In other countries where health care is dealt with in a more rational manner, they don’t screen for prostrate cancer like we do, and consequently, do not catch it as early as we do. That may sound favorable to our methods, but there is a catch – our survival rates and theirs are identical. Cattching it early makes o difference. How do we deal with that finding in an irrational environment?

      I recently sent two employees to BCBS in Montana to apply for health insurance. One was rejected. He might not be profitable to them. How you can talk about government death panels as private death panels are the norm is strange. Why can you not see what is so painfully apparent? This man has been excluded from the health care system by two people who only gave their initials on the rejection, one illegible. Who gave them life and death power over fellow citizens?

  • Mark, my name is not Steve Forbes. As to the larger issue of some govt group making life and death decisions based on cost benefit analysis, chose any descriptor your want for such a panel. Justify it any way you like. Those on the pointy end of spear may have an entirely different perspective.

    • Craig, the concept of “death panels” was invented by the PR industry to be repeated at Tea Party rallies. It’s short, memorable, and emotion-packed. That’s why it was so effective, as it is what the PR people do.

      But true death panels are run by private insurance companies, who deny coverage, turn people away, and in general seek to maximize profits by paying out as few benefits as possible. If you cannot see that, you are willfully blind.

        • What straw-man?!!! I know this subject, I understand the nature of the insurance business and its business model, how it is sold, how it empowers favored politicians. I know the statistics for health care costs and general public health here and in other countries. I know the number of millions who are uninsured. I myself am considered un-insurable though I am in excellent health. I know why we have Medicare and Medicaid. I understand advertising and public relations and how it is used to demonize health care in other countries while it sticks us with our own miserable system. I understand Medicare D and how it came about, why insurance companies fear single payer and why Baucus pretended to be engaging in a policy discussion.

          Good grief, Craig, bring something to the table some time.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, Craig, but I can still get a prostate screening, even if DHHS says I don’t need one. So they may be a panel that makes suggestions that may result in death, but they certain don’t condemn people to death.

      • Matthew, DHHS’ determination that prostate screen or mammograms are not medical necessary only affects those that need them and don’t have the independent means to afford them out of their own pocket. Insurers do not pay for “not medically necessary” procedures. Of course that is a euphemism for cost/benefit analysis by accountants. The result is the same for both private insurance and public assistance. Don’t need to look any further than how govt has handled Indian reservation healthcare to see dreadful examples of rationing and denial of needed services.

        • “Insurers do not pay for “not medically necessary” procedures. ”

          Actually, Craig, they reserve to themselves the privilege to decide what is and is not necessary, based in part by doctors recommendations based in part on a will to profit. My current Insurer pays for mild anti-depressants at a doctor’s order, or even erection pills, but often refuses to pay for preventive mental care, and almost always refuses birth control. Are you seriously that concerned about bureaucratic health decisions, which will be documented to the finest line, in the face of profit driven decisions that make no sense whatsoever?

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