After Iowa and New Hampshire
By JONATHAN M. FELDMAN
Presidential elections, and electoral politics more generally, are often a source for mass confusion. The confusion is based on what Freud termed “the overvaluation of the object.” He was describing the overvaluation of the object of desire, leading to various fetishes that displaced objects of longing in places sometimes deemed abnormal. One can make a fetish of any candidate or the opportunistic character of most politicians and the electoral process. One might celebrate the sense of the possible in Obama, the union backed populism of Edwards, or even Clinton’s parries with the health insurance industry. There are virtues to these candidates and weaknesses (if not fatal flaws) when it comes to their ability-or that of the larger electoral system-to address the central problems facing us. Or one could call elections “traps for fools” as Jean-Paul Sartre once did. All these things are more or less relevant, but slightly beside the point.
What’s more relevant is the structural realignment of the Democratic Party. Stanley Aronowitz, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, described the problem in an essay on “The Decline of American Liberalism” (published in his book Dead Artists, Live Theories and Other Cultural Problems, New York, Routledge, 1992). Aronowitz wrote that “the Democratic Party has less in common with its New Deal forebears than ever before, and its ‘progressive wing’ has never been smaller. Still, the left realignment forces persist, waiting for the inevitable economic crisis to drive the labor movement and the Democratic Party further to the left or for the pendulum of history to resolve the anomalies in their theory and analysis. But the economic crisis has come and things are getting worse politically. The pendulum is at a standstill.” Aronowitz challenged his readers by writing “there is no independent left in the US worthy of the name.” Such a left “would have as its main tasks to define and disseminate the ideas of democracy among political activists and the general population.”
This brings us to the observations of Jerry Brown back in 1992 who, when running against the other Clinton, remarked that “the way he wins the election will shape what happens once he gets in office,” or something to that effect. Brown, as the embodiment of the fragments of environmental, New Age and alternative politics, was simply deemed a “flake.” His counterpart, Bill Clinton, was recognized as the ever-present “triangulator” and called “slick,” unable to hold a firm position. Brown, like Ralph Nader and John Edwards today, singled out the impact of elite financial interests in shaping the electoral process. How someone gets elected will shape to whom they are accountable to later on. This idea was codified by Thomas Fergusson, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, and author of Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. In describing the theory, G. William Domhoff, in some ways the intellectual heir to C. Wright Mills, explained that theories claiming that voters control political parties in the United States suffer from various weaknesses. The problem, Domhoff wrote, is that “these theories underestimate the costs encountered by American voters in trying to exert control, which include the time and energy spent in obtaining information, finding allies, and choosing candidates, as well as the large amount of money needed for advertising, hiring consultants, and traveling.” American politics in the last century often became reduced to “battles between rival ‘investor blocks’ rooted in economic sectors that need slightly different policies on such issues as tariffs, subsidies, military spending, and government support for labor unions.”
[for more of this article, go here to Counterpunch.]