A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims, then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)
In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won 365 electoral college votes. He pulled this political feat off thanks to the Obama Coalition–a motley crew of Democratic faithful, independents, fired up progressives, disillusioned Republicans. Obama talked a good talk on the campaign trail; he spoke of moving on from the Bush legacy; he spoke of a new American attitude to power worldwide, one infected by a moral sensibility. The same passion which would be visible in the Bernie Sanders campaign of the 2016 election season was visible in the Obama campaign: young folks signed up in droves, disaffected and cynical older radicals, impressed by the passion and energy of the ‘young’ Obama, did so too. Obama came to power with majorities in the House and Senate; the way was clear for him to implement the vision of the Dream he had sold to the American people. (It is worth remembering that Obama could once call on 58 Senators and two Independents who caucused with the Democrats.)
Shortly after the inauguration, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration decided they would and could do without their ‘progressive base’–that they would, instead, negotiate with intransigent Republicans, making concessions that had not yet become sticking points for their political opponents; they decided their ‘base’ was too ‘shrill,’ too ‘radical,’; they decided to tack to the ‘center’ instead, that same political destination which has long served as an excuse for the Democratic Party to not do its job and listen to its constituents. There would be no closing of Guantanamo Bay; bankers would not be prosecuted; nor would torturers; there would be no public option in the national healthcare plan; and so on. The Republican Party and the Tea Party stuck to their playbook and nurtured their ‘base’; the Democratic Party could not be bothered.
Predictably, there was depressed turnout in the 2010 elections; the Coalition had fallen apart. There would be no getting out the vote; no inspirational platform to get behind. Just more of the same.
Republicans regained control of the chamber they had lost in the 2006 midterm elections, picking up a net total of 63 seats and erasing the gains Democrats made in 2006 and 2008. Although the sitting U.S. President’s party usually loses seats in a midterm election, the 2010 election resulted in the highest loss of a party in a House midterm election since 1938, and the largest House swing since 1948.
Republicans won four seats held by retiring Democrats and Republicans defeated two incumbent Democrats, for a total gain of six seats. This was the largest number of Republicans gains since the 1994 elections and also the first time since that election that Republicans successfully defended all of their own seats.
In 2016, the lessons to be learned had not been: a deeply flawed ‘non-change’ candidate was nominated, one who could not command the vote of a post-Bush nation eight years previously; the passion and fervor of a progressive coalition was ignored; inspiration was discarded in favor of triangulation.
The first time as farce; the second time as tragedy.
The Pope Francis Honeymoon is over. The Pontiff who could make a hardened Republican, the third most powerful man in American government, cry like a particularly lachrymose baby, who has been saying all the right things for a very long time, who has been playing music for progressive ears, has gone ahead jumped the shark by meeting with Kim Davis–she of “I shall not marry the gays” and “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is so my song” fame. Reports have it that the Pope urged her to “stay strong” and described her as a “conscientious objector.” Much to progressives’ dismay, besides showing his poor understanding of the secular notion of the separation of church and state, Pope Francis also threw his considerable papal weight behind a bigot. I will admit that little is known about the meeting’s particulars but the reaction to it suggests there are considerable hopes invested in this Pope becoming an ally of progressive political forces.
I must confess, I was always a tad surprised by these hopes. Vague, anodyne ramblings about social justice and taking care of the sick and the poor have always been on Popes’ lips. They are part and parcel of the rhetorical package that goes with being called ‘Papa’ by crowds of adoring millions. Talk of Christian charity is cheap when it is clear that that charity is not really universal, that it is only selectively extended–to those with the right beliefs. Talk of the co-existence and compatibility of creationism and evolutionary theory is cheap too, when this is merely official Church doctrine, pragmatically adopted as long back as 1950. The Church, better than many adherents, understands the need to stay ‘relevant.’ To be sure this Pope has gone further, and to more places where previous Popes simply did not. But affixing political labels on him will not work; and neither will counting on him as a progressive ally.
A liberal Pope would not be a Pope; he would disdain the office, its titles, its pretensions. he would not wave to admiring crowds, pretending to be the arbiter of human fates, an infallible head of state, a ‘spiritual’ leader of millions, a hobnobber with heads of states. A liberal pope would not take on, and exercise the power of forgiving those who sin. A liberal pope would have to be a secular pope, and that he cannot be; you cannot be a liberal if you think the world can be divided into sinners and do-gooders with a special place reserved for those who sin and for those who don’t. The notion of damnation, of sin, is an illiberal, reactionary one. Forgiveness of those who have abortions sounds wunderful till you realize it is no human’s business to hand out forgiveness in the first place. A liberal Pope makes no sense; we can at best proclaim a particular pontiff is ‘liberal for a Pope.’
Popes, the heads of large, hierarchical organizations which claim a monopoly on the truth, which aim to provide moral and ethical instruction, and a guidebook for deliverance in this world and the next, cannot be liberal.
Experienced students of politics and of the human mind know that politics–the ‘science,’ the business, of power–is all too often a zone of the irrational, a domain of intense passion and emotion, covered up with a thin veneer of seemingly rational discourse, of point and counterpoint. This irrationality manifests itself in familiar phenomena such as the futility of political argument: participants in these festivals of rhetorical jousting come away, not with their beliefs changed or altered in the slightest, but rather, ever more entrenched and buttressed with more sophisticated defenses. Offense in political arguments does not bring about meek or even reluctant surrender; it only produces defiant defense.
I have been reminded, acutely, of these irrational foundations of politics as I inspect my reactions to the recent rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘British politician who is Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.’ For weeks my social media timelines have been full of Corbyn; his political record, his manifesto, the reactions of Britain’s conservatives to his ascent to power, his non-singing of the national anthem and so on. Wall to wall Corbyn, really. ‘Progressive’ and ‘leftist’ Americans, Englishmen, and Australians, are all entranced by this man, by the hostility he provokes on the political right; his record on all the major issues that engage this demographic evokes murmurs of admiration and respect; there have been no sightings, yet, of Corbyn riding on an ass into Jerusalem, but for all the attention he has attracted, one would not be remiss in thinking that precisely such a triumphal march had taken place. (Corbyn, as a reminder, has not been elected Prime Minister; he has merely been elected leader of the Labour Party.)
I should perhaps be interested in this spectacle; the rise to a power of a ‘progressive’ politician should catch my attention and tickle my fancies. And yet, the overwhelming response on my part, once my initial curiosity about the man who seemed to be attracting so much hostility from David Cameron and his party had passed, has been one of thinly repressed irritation. I’m sick of the wall-to-wall bonanaza of Corbyn that I’ve been subjected to; I cannot wait for it to end, for this season to pass.
My reasons are quite transparent to me. I’m consumed by a species of post-colonial resentment. I’m an American citizen, and the US has been my home for almost thirty years, but my political responses and reactions to the Corbyn ‘phenomenon’ are still animated by a primeval response whose underpinnings are only discernible in the older, bound-up-with-each-other histories of India and Britain. I find myself seething at the disproportionate attention paid to this British politician; I wonder what relevance it has to American politics (even as I tell myself that comfort and succor given to George Bush by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war was perhaps a crucial factor in the decision to go to war); I glower at the hagiographic descriptions showered upon Corbyn; I cannot bring myself to click on the parade of links that march through my social media timelines.
In short, I wish the sun would set on the damn British Empire already, that Britain would stop being made to feel like it was still the center of the universe and more like it was just any other European nation.
Not very rational, right? But there it is. And I’m a grown man with a PhD in philosophy. What hope political discourse?
At The New Republic, Rebecca Traister writes of the ‘New, Old, Hillary’ Clinton, of the woman who started out as the kind of politician-cum-activist the left would love to have as president, but who became an opportunistic ‘contortionist’, one only too willing to compromise to be accepted, to hold on to power and exercise it:
America did not much like this woman when she first came to us: ambitious and tough and liberal and feminist and interested in social progress and civil rights and reforming the world for women and children across classes…And so, in her quest to become a mainstream, powerful politician, she contorted; she bent and stretched to be more like what the people could stomach….Her willingness to shape-shift will always haunt her; she’ll pay for it in low estimations of her trustworthiness and moral timbre. Those costs are on her, and they are ones she may have calculated from the beginning.
But it’s also on us, and our longstanding lack of appetite for women who threaten or trouble us.
I agree with Traister: many reactions to Hillary Clinton have been distasteful and acutely revealing of the deep-rooted sexism that animates this patriarchal society of ours. Still, there were many who cheered for Hillary too, who wanted her to be the politician who had racked up the impressive activist credentials and history that Traister cites in her piece. (I remember my delight at finding out Bill Clinton’s to-be-doomed healthcare initiative would feature Hilary Clinton in a central role. For a counterview though to the history Traister provides, do read Doug Henwood‘s ‘Stop Hillary!’ essay.) The booing from the gallery was admittedly louder than the cheering, the catcalls more numerous than the bouquets, but a mystery remains: Why did Hilary respond with such alacrity to the former and not the latter?
Hilary’s retreat from her formerly held positions was even more disheartening because she has had so many opportunities to redeem herself, very few of which she has taken on. We might perhaps be pardoned our distrust then; it seems the only time we see the old Hillary is on the campaign trail. This old Hillary that Traister speaks of, how much have we seen of her when the going was good? In the eight years of the Bill Clinton presidency, how did she exert herself and burnish her progressive credentials? She did so by inducing two swings to the center–‘the balanced budget and welfare reform.’ Did she do so when she was Secretary of State? Instead, she oversaw a more ‘hawkish foreign policy.’
We all know the story: idealistic politician storms out of the gate, spouting fire and brimstone oratory, swinging for the fences, every word and gesture suggesting no prisoners will be taken; then, reality sinks in; pragmatism rules the roost; governing, not campaigning, takes over. (Yes, we thought we could!) We’ve all tasted the bitterness of watching an unconventional candidate become conventional. This is what generates Hilary’s greatest credibility crisis: We are more betrayed by the supposed idealist than by the supposed pragmatist. Hilary’s task is not to convince the latter, it is to persuade the former to return the fold. I’m afraid the going will be tough.