There are some who say that American Presidential elections are not that important, that we progressives should not spend too much of our precious time on them. Nevertheless, Presidential elections are important because they are a part of the civic process of political legitimation and validation in America’s mass-mediated democratic society. American voters get to decide which political party controls the State, and which party forms an administration that defines domestic and foreign policy.
In the United States, Presidential elections are particularly important because they involve mobilized bureaucratic political machines, the large corporations, and tens of millions of millions of Americans who vote and get involved in doing the daily work of the political parties. Because so many people perceive and act as though elections are important, they become important and real in their consequences.
In the US, the two large bureaucratic political party machines, the Democratic and Republican Parties, administer, organize, and take responsibility for the lengthy and costly voting and election process. Here the ultimate prize is political power for the next US President, its administration, and the Party that got them into power. Political organizers and strategists in both parties are paid big bucks to get results.
The powerful corporations certainly consider elections very important and spend millions to make sure that their economic interests and power are represented by both parties. The Pentagonians and the Generals also get their say on the television, making sure that whoever wins understands the need for an ever expanding defense budget to fight the “war on terror” indefinitely into the future. It will be difficult for either candidate to change very much of this. The empire must be defended.
The recent rhetorical war of words between the Obama and Clinton campaigns and their supporters are now constantly flooding the airways and streaming through our radios, newspapers, internet servers, and the mainstream media.
Like John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton has pushed national security issues to the foreground suggesting that Obama is not ready to be commander in chief like she and McCain are. She says she will be “ready to act on day one,” like she was when she supported Bush and voted for the use of force in Iraq.
Obama, at least, has stated he would want more emphasis on diplomacy and a more cautious and multilateral use of American military power. He continues to criticize the “disastrous” decision to launch the Iraq war, and has begun to raise an issue of concern to progressives “the possible alternative domestic problems that could be addressed with the trillions of dollars going to Iraq. While Obama’s campaign has received support from many progressive Democrats like Tom Haden and media critic Robert Solomon who want an end to the war, he also has also received substantial support and money from elements in the ruling class and the corporate establishment who may believe that the current disastrous trajectory of the country threatens even their interests.
Why the 2008 Elections Are Historic
The 2008 American Presidential elections are already historic, and scholars and journalists will be writing dissertations and books on it for years. A Democratic Party victory of either Presidential candidate, Barrack Obama or Hillary Clinton, would be a significant historic event. Furthermore, a landslide repudiation of Bush’s war policies (and the consequent economic downturn partially generated by the dramatic increase in the price of oil), and a good electoral trouncing of John Mc Cain, would also be historically significant. It would restore hope in a war weary and divided world that wants signs of a visible change and greater rationality in American policies.
An Obama victory could undoubtedly heal some of the sensitive racial wounds that have been an undeniable ugly part of American history, although some skeptics still warn that an Obama Presidency could re-inflame them. Hillary Clinton‘s victory would also be historic because we would have our first female President, proof that we have come a long way from the times when women could not even vote.
Both candidates have received a tremendous amount of support from the American people. Yet, the “identity politics” of race and gender that have so far played a role will likely be trumped by the bigger issues such as the economy and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A joint ticket is near an impossibility given the mudslinging and personal attacks of the past week, most of it initiated by Clinton who is now demanding a costly revote in Michigan and Florida. Now many media commentators and political pundits are questioning whether there can even be a peaceful reconciliation within the Democratic Party. A bitter struggle to the end decided by the super delegates at the convention could be a disaster. and might just be enough to accomplish the impossible – another Republican victory in November by a pro war John McCain.
Let’s face it. Within the two party system, politics involves a cynical and often times ruthless struggle for power. The power to choose the next Supreme Court justices, the power to decide when and where to deploy American forces, and ultimately the power to decide when military force will be used against others is at stake. It also means the power to frame public perceptions, to alter the tax structure, to define the scope of civil liberties and human rights, and to develop specific policies regarding domestic environmental and social problems.
Third Party Candidates
Based on the historical and documentary record, we can conclude that the two political party machines do everything in their power to maintain a monopoly of legitimacy and prevent Third Party candidates from getting a serious hearing. Gaining control of the state apparatus is essential to both political machines. To do this they must monopolize political discourse and silence outsiders. This is why there has never been a successful third party candidacy for President in American history. The established social structure, the power of corporations and the mainstream media, as well as the cultural political traditions in America, are aggressively mobilized against it.
Instead, third party candidacies are invariably made into a scapegoat by the losing party. The strong historical pattern is for defeated parties to project their faults and failures onto the back of the “goat” as it is sent off into the wilderness. This is essentially what has happened to Ralph Nader since the controversial 2000 elections where the Supreme Court intervened to stop a Florida recount.
The organizational prospects of a powerful social movement for change propelling a successful third party candidate are currently weak, if not non-existent, in spite of the polls which show a majority of Americans opposed to the war. While many have raised a big stink about another Nader candidacy, it is unlikely that Nader will have any impact on the final results of the 2008 elections. All a third party candidate like Nader can hope to do at this point is gain enough legitimacy and recognition to raise public issues that are considered two controversial by the two political machines. Nader’s celebrity status will allow some of this to happen, but it is unlikely to have any substantial effect on the final election results in spite of the scary scenarios drummed up by revived Nader critics.
The American Legitimacy Crisis
Trotsky once said that “every state is founded on force.” The sociologist Max Weber agreed. However, Weber added another complicating factor, the issue of “legitimacy.” He defined the state as an institution that “monopolizes the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.” By extension, an imperial state like the United States tries to monopolize the legitimate use of violence internationally, blessing all of its military actions with the impeccable label of defense.
Voting is a powerful means of providing legitimacy for the state on the domestic front. This explains why a small number of progressives and idealists, despairing of the prospect for change within the electoral political game defined by the ruling class and its two political parties, opt out and refuse to vote or insist on voting outside of the two party duopoly.
The next American President will face an unprecedented international “legitimacy crisis” around the world regarding the “war on terror,” a possible serious economic recession and financial crisis, and the growing military burden and economic costs of the two endless counter insurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the next President will face the continued political instability and violence caused by the iron fisted Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands and the possible collapse of peace talks. Furthermore, they will continue to face more resistance, rebellion, and change in their backyard in Central and South America. Finally, they will be faced with an environmental crisis of runaway global warming that could dwarf anything we have seen in the past.
It is a hopeful sign that most Americans say they want to see change away from the current Bush policies of torture, occupation, and war. Some of this hope is providing a higher turnout in the Democratic primaries around the country. The next election will reveal just how deep that desire for change really is. One thing is certain. We are entering a period of troubled times for the overstretched American Empire and its exhausted military. It is time to bring the troops home and seek genuine multilateral and international solutions to numerous difficult political conflicts.