A while back, I wrote a post about how the culture wars were started–and continue to be exploited–to convince working- and middle-class people to support the Republicans even though that party supports foreign, economic, and fiscal policy that’s awful for 90% of folks in the US. I argued that those of us concerned with social and economic justice have to redirect Americans’ attention from this narrow concern over abortion and homosexuality if we are going to address the most serious problems we face today: unending war, crushing poverty, climate change, ecosystem collapse…the list goes on. Republicans and conservatives certainly bear the brunt of the blame for this culture-war focus–but what has become clear over the last 2 decades is that the Democrats are just as willing to exploit the culture wars. As Thomas Frank discusses in a new essay in Harper’s (which is behind a paywall, so I’ll link you to a Salon interview about it instead), Obama hasn’t really challenged any of the substantial economic, foreign, or environmental policies of the Bush years. He’s instead touting his (at best, wishy-washy) support for abortion rights, his (late, and often muffled) defense of gay rights, and his “I’m slightly less of a toady for Wall St.” history as President as reason why progressives and liberals should turn out to vote for him in November.
But this just-barely-left-of-the-Republicans Democratic strategy isn’t new to Obama. Let’s not forget that it was Clinton who signed NAFTA–with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress–and it was Jimmy Carter who made it clear that the US would use force to defend its interests in the Gulf. The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall St., the banking sector, and the big multinational corporations for campaign contributions–and post-public-service jobs–as the Republicans are. Policies that actually challenge the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment don’t go over well with the tiny fraction of people around the world who own most of the land, capital, and wealth. So the Democrats are no more interested in standing up on these issues.
And the culture wars, though begun to bolster support for conservative Republicans, have offered the Democrats an unbeatable opportunity. They can, both personally and institutionally, cozy up to big business just as closely as the Republicans, and wax hysterical in public over the same cultural issues to frighten up support from workers, women, and minorities. Both parties, in other words, use the culture wars to get Americans to support them, even as each party pursues policies that are detrimental to almost all of us. There is, in short, no (sizable) labor party in this country. There’s no substantial party critiquing capitalism. There’s no party really talking about poverty, about justice. Democrats are just as willing to throw poor people in jail for stealing a candy bar while groveling at the feet of Jamie Dimon. Bill Clinton was famous for his “it’s the economy, stupid” campaign in ’96, but the reality is that it’s not about the economy anymore–both parties support the same positions. It’s about cultural posturing. The wealthy are happy to support a ‘pro-life’, anti-gay party and a pro-choice, pro-gay party, precisely because neither of these issues actually affect their bottom line. But increasing the minimum wage, prohibiting pollution, supporting unions, respecting the sovereignty of other nations–these would cost them–billions, trillions of dollars–and so neither party makes a move, even the supposedly worker- and environment-friendly Dems.
I don’t mean to suggest that abortion and gay rights aren’t important issues–they are. And I’m glad to see the Democrats defending women and homosexuals, advancing their causes on these issues. Because they are crucial debates about the rights of Americans. These issues are necessary in the fight for a better world, but they’re not sufficient. If women have good access to safe abortions and gay folks can get married, but the planet is 2 or 3 degrees C hotter, our air and water are toxic, most people around the world are living on a few dollars a day, and there’s an unending war–is that a future we can look forward to? I am in no way calling for progressives and liberals to abandon the pro-choice and pro-gay positions–but I am asking that they demand more from their supposed representatives. Because the course we’re on doesn’t end well.
Here’s where most people would begin to talk about voting strategy–should we refuse to vote for Obama because he’s basically Bush 2.0? Maybe that would show him; maybe that’d force the Dems to move to the left in ’14 and ’16. Many would argue that this is our only hope, that progressives and liberals have to let the Dems know they can’t take us for granted–that they’ll never respond to our demands if they know we will vote for them no matter what. But of course others would point out that that would mean a Romney presidency, and as bad as Obama has been on so many issues, Romney would clearly be worse. Don’t we have to think about the short-term as well as the long-?
I don’t have anything to really add to this debate. I’m not sure I can bring myself to vote for someone who is murdering US citizens without trial. But does that mean that I’m implicitly supporting a Romney presidency?…my fundamental response is that voting isn’t going to fix this. We need to recognize that we will have to organize and build a real movement for social justice. The good news, of course, is that people already are. But we can’t change things with a thousand, or even ten thousand committed activists protesting and resisting. We will need millions–tens of millions–of Americans to step forward into this fight. I’m not sure how to get there. The obstacles are many, daunting, and complicated. But it does seem to me that one of the biggest, and earliest, obstacles that will lie before us is the polarization of the US along the culture war fracture. A popular movement that doesn’t include poor minorities, rural folks, construction workers, factory workers, and a good chunk of the middle class isn’t a popular movement at all. We are going to have to start looking at people as something other than socially liberal or conservative. We’re going to have to recognize that the pro-life, anti-gay blue collar people so many liberals denigrate and ignore are not our enemies. We are all being crushed by late capitalism, together, all the same. Organizing will mean finding common ground with them, it will mean building bridges over the culture war fissure. It will mean challenging not only the conservative, Republican culture war narrative–but the “liberal” Democratic one as well.