June 21, 2012

A sinner’s view of born again politics

Sam Smith

The overwhelmingly negative comments to my piece on a one night stand approach to Obama – elect him, then oppose him – reminded me that while the right may be driven by born again religion, progressives and liberals are often driven by born again politics.

In either case, personal salvation or redemption takes precedence over communal progress.

In fact, whether I truly believe in Jesus or truly disbelieve in Obama changes the world not one iota. Change comes from large numbers of people moving in the same useful direction.

Saints may help show the way, but they can’t produce the change unless, that is, you accept the great definition of a saint as a sinner who tries harder. Change is the product of the flawed, the failed, and the frustrated moving in common.

Which is why politics tends to be a more useful tool than many forms of religion. And why a sinner can feel more comfortable at a city council meeting than at confession.

In my article, I mentioned my political roots having been in places like Philadelphia, Boston and Washington where this question seldom arose. Which is one of the reasons politics appealed to me even as a pre-teen. It wasn’t like church, home, or school. You didn’t even have to wash your hands before you took part in it.

As I read readers’ excoriations of my willingness to vote for Obama despite his sins in order to create a better battlefield for struggles we have barely begun, I was reminded of one of the reasons we can’t get these struggles going: you’re meant to be saved before you can join the battle.

This is something that has troubled me for decades about left politics. How do you grow a cause if only proper people can join it? I realized that something bad was happening beginning about 30 years ago. Liberalism was becoming a demographic rather than a movement. And if you weren’t part of that demographic, there was little hope for you.

That was alien to everything I had learned as a New Deal baby, a 1950s doubter and a 1960s activist. Even Martin Luther King told his aides that they must remember that their goal included that some day their enemies would become their friends.

After Don Imus had been slammed for tasteless remarks about black women basketball players, I wrote:

In his marvelous book, Respect, Richard Sennett (who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing project) notes that for radicals in his generation, making bureaucracy the enemy "still did not reveal how to make friends with those who were not radicals. . . The struggle to break apart institutions failed to bring the New Left closer to people unlike ourselves."

And he concludes, "In society, attacking the evils of inequality cannot alone generate mutual respect. In society, and particularly in the welfare state, the nub of the problem we face is how the strong can practice respect towards those destined to remain weak."

The problem is particularly acute among liberals who are increasingly separated from the weak either by ethnicity or by class. It has brought a major shift in the priorities of liberals - with a shrinking interest in those policies that truly help the weak and a growing condescension towards those who do not share their cultural enlightenment. Much of what was going on during the Imus affair consisted of upscale liberals and media establishing their own virtuous credentials, an act which, aside from its boredom, does little to improve matters.

It’s somewhat the same with voting against Obama or staying home. The choice can achieve personal virtue, but whom else has it helped? How many people is one willing to see go without food stamps, lose their jobs or have their Social Security trimmed as a result of one’s noble act?

Saul Alinsky put it this way:

There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoyevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system… They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. . . . If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.

Alinksy wrote that in 1971, about a decade before America began its long collapse. If liberals and progressives had listened to him instead of becoming a comfortable elite, the story might have been a lot different.

Which is one reason I don’t mind being considered politically flawed. Because politics only works when it is a collective achievement by a bunch of sinners willing to work with each other.


Anonymous said...

I believe you're misinterpreting what you're seeing, Sam.

I voted for Cynthia last time because, like you, I saw Obama for what he was (actually, he's even worse than what I thought he would be). That wasn't a "personal" gesture, that was a crossed-fingers action: I hoped that enough other people would also vote for Cynthia.

If you really see some benefit in voting for Obama (you talk about people losing food stamps, but remember that Clinton is one of Obama's role models. Who burnt the safety net? Uh-huh) then you have to lay it out in a much more credible and engaging way than you've done so far.

In the passage you quote, Alinsky wasn't talking about voting for the lesser evil. What Alinsky meant about "working inside the system" is to use the system to its disadvantage, constantly going outside your opponents' expectations, but never going outside those of your allies.

If you're serious, Sam, try again.

Strelnikov said...

This is the absolute Goddamned truth...liberalism has become a lifestyle and not a true political position, and lifestyles wither in front of assholes like the GOP who say "no" or just mouth cut-downs.

Dave A said...

Dear Reverend Pragmatism,

There may be one thing that you have forgotten.

I will be voting for Jill Stein in November and will still be as pragmatic as you. Why? Because I live in New York. Romney has no chance in New York and with the electoral college, my vote for Jill Stein will be my shout that Obama isn't doing what he should be.

And I will not be holding my nose on Election Day.


Dan Lynch said...

Sam asked "How many people is one willing to see go without food stamps, lose their jobs or have their Social Security trimmed as a result of one’s noble act?"

But Sam, the Democrat controlled Senate just voted to cut food stamps. Obama, Pelosi, and Reid have agreed to cut SS/Medicare and slash spending during a depression. And you support these people ?

As I said in a previous post, this is NOT your father's Democratic party. A vote for a Democrat is a vote for endless war abroad and corporate rule at home.

Unless you live in a swing state, your vote for president does not count, so why obsess over it ?

Anonymous said...

Imagine this: 40,000,000 people vote, 20,000,000 vote for Jill Stein, 8,000,000 vote for Obama, and 10,000,000 vote for Romney, and 2,000,000 vote for other candidates. Who wins? Not Obama or Romney or the other candidates. C'mon, Sam, show some balls. Voting for Stein is working within the system to bring about progressive change. Like Dave A, I'm voting for Stein and I won't be holding my nose on Election Day. Screw Obama and screw Romney - I'm done with traitors and water-carriers for the elite.

Anonymous said...

The limousine liberals split off from the Wallace-Carter heart of the party during the Kennedy folly and democracy was done in anyway by Buckley v. Valeo. A movement to abolish money from politics would realign the parties and permit the transformation that Wallace (1983) and Carter (1976) started.

Scott McLarty said...

Sam, the only thing reassuring about your essay above is that you've addressed none of the things I raised in my response to your original "One night stand" piece, certainly not in any of this essay's irrelevancies about salvation and born-again politics.

"It’s somewhat the same with voting against Obama or staying home. The choice can achieve personal virtue, but whom else has it helped? How many people is one willing to see go without food stamps, lose their jobs or have their Social Security trimmed as a result of one’s noble act?"

It's clear now that whether we put a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, Social Security stands in danger of being carved up. As another commenter noted, a Democratic president slashed food stamps. We don't need repeat the list of ways in which Obama has adopted GOP agenda.

What if we've reached the point where perpetual one night stands (they're never just one night, are they?) can no longer be justified on the grounds of pragmatism?

What pragmatism is there in a one night stand with Obama when we're talking about global warming? We can be sure that Obama & a Democratic Congress, if we get them on Election Day 2012, will do no more than a bare minimum to curb climate change, and will undermine even that with more dangerous energy policies. We don't have much time left, as articles carried in Undernews constantly remind us. The only way we'll get some intelligent discussion on global warming in this presidential year is if the Green candidate can get some public attention & support.

For many people, when we're talking about things like global warming or drone attacks or the dismantling of the US Constitution, the decision to vote Green isn't a matter of exercising personal virture or a noble act. It's a realization that no change is possible if we keep finding excuses to vote Democrat -- we're hardly even "holding down the fort" on things like Social Security. It's a realization that no more can be gained by showing the Democratic Party (which hates progressives, as Rahm Emanuel's "retard" remark reminded us) that they can still take progressive votes for granted.

I miss the old Undernews, which was edited by someone who understood these things.