The Partisan and the Political

October 18th, 2011  |  Published in Politics  |  33 Comments

Update 10/19: I have a clarification to part of this post here.

Lately I’ve noticed some concern over the intermittent tendency to portray Occupy Wall Street, and other insurgent movements, as somehow “neither left nor right”; recently, we can see Matt Taibbi engaging in this rhetoric, and Richard Seymour found it cropping up at Occupy London. This is, I agree, an annoying rhetorical tic; maybe even a dangerous one. Digby, in the link above, attributes this framing to a quixotic desire to escape political conflict; others suggest that it reflects an unwillingness to confront the class struggle at the heart of populist “99-percenter” rhetoric. Maybe, but I suspect it’s also something else: less a product of wrong ideology than of an impoverished political vocabulary, which is the inevitable consequence of the decline of the left and of political consciousness generally. This decline has produced widespread confusion about the difference between, on the one hand, the way political partisanship operates in contemporary politics, and on the other hand, the importance of actual contests of political ideology. In such a period, morbid symptoms appear.

To summarize the thesis: ordinary people hate partisanship, and elites hate ideology. Hence the elite is constantly attempting to misrepresent the latter as the former. And the masses sometimes respond by repudiating ideology when they mean to reject partisanship.

By partisanship, I mean adopting positions or taking actions based purely on what is immediately advantageous to your “side”, party, or faction. (On the far left, this usually goes by the name of “sectarianism”.) When Republicans denounce a health care plan that they were promoting a few years before, just to make the Democrats look bad, they’re being partisan. When Democratic-aligned lawyers go from vigorously denouncing Bush’s imperial presidency to giving legal cover to Obama’s death squads, they’re being partisan. A lot of people find this kind of behavior objectionable, because it is so transparently cynical and unprincipled, motivated by the desire to win tactical–and personal–advantages even at the expense of larger ideals and strategic objectives–that is, at the expense of ideology. What this sort of partisanship ultimately amounts to is the conviction that politics is about winning power for its own sake, rather than using that power for some larger purpose. The Wall Street protests seem to have drawn a decent number of people who were disengaged from the political system, perhaps from a revulsion at this kind of cynical partisanship, combined with a vague ideological intuition that neither side of the mainstream partisan divide is actually pursuing anything that is in their interest.

I recognize, of course, that ideology ultimately requires partisanship, since principles can only become political works through the vehicle of some kind of organization or party. The attempt to permanently separate the two runs aground in an individualistic sort of anarchism. But ideology and partisanship can only be aligned in specific circumstances–as, for instance, when the political system features parties with coherent and clearly opposed ideologies. In the United States, the diminishing distance between the parties–and the total incoherence of the Democratic side–has led the ideological and the partisan to become totally disconnected. Thus we see the parties locked in ever more vicious and polarized combat, even when both sides seem to be marching to the same neo-liberal drumbeat.

So while we might wish for an organized partisan vehicle for radical ideology, we also have to deal with the reality that one does not yet exist. Hence, firm ideology often manifests itself in opposition to partisanship; Glenn Greenwald, for example, has come down hard against the lawyers who wrote Obama’s death squad opinion, just as he did against John Yoo and other architects of Bush’s torture regime. He does so because he has an ideological commitment to civil liberties, due process, and the rule of law, which supersedes partisan loyalty to Democrats or Republicans.

Many people will profess to admire principled ideological stances like Greenwald’s, even when they disagree with the specifics of the ideology. But the one group that is implacably hostile to such displays of principle is the world’s economic and political elites. That’s because they benefit from a situation in which their preferences and goals are treated as objective common sense, and alternative ideologies cannot be considered or even articulated. It’s in that light that we should consider the continual elite longing for a “centrist” or “post-partisan” leader to deliver us from the evil of political polarization. What this yearning represents is not so much a desire to escape from narrow partisan cynicism as it is an attempt to prevent the drawing of clear distinctions of political principle.

President Obama is of course an exemplary case of this kind of post-partisanship, which substitutes image for substance; the latest iteration of such nonsense is the Politico‘s new “primary”, in which Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen propose several candidates who will transcend “Washington and conventional politics” and “harness the public’s hunger for something new, different and inspiring”. As Greg Marx documents, the discussion of these fantasy candidates is almost entirely vacuous, characterized by “indifference to policy, an eagerness to see politicians as products to be marketed, undue deference to institutional authority, a fetish for ‘centrism'”. Thus it’s tempting to dismiss the whole exercise as the effluvium of political horse-race journalism and its fatuous, intellectually bankrupt culture; but this kind of posturing is, in fact, satisfying someone’s “hunger”–just not the general public’s.

VandeHei and Allen are careful to avoid attributing any kind of ideological substance to their proposed candidates. Instead, they describe them with empty signifiers like “authentic outsider”, “a combination of money, accomplishment and celebrity”, “a strong leader [voters] can truly believe in”, and “someone who breaks free from the tired right-versus-left constraint on modern politics”. But that doesn’t mean there’s no ideological agenda here. There is, and it leaks through in their profile of erstwhile Deficit Commissioner Erskine Bowles: “The most depressing reality of modern governance is this: The current system seems incapable of dealing with our debt addiction before it becomes a crippling crisis.”

It’s hardly worth pointing out anymore that there is, in fact, no debt crisis; on the contrary, sensible observers are wondering why the government is bothering to collect revenues at all, when the cost of borrowing is hitting zero. By now, everyone who cares has realized that fear-mongering about the debt and the deficit is a trick used opportunistically by those who want to reorient government around their particular priorities. And the priorities of the deficit scolds, judging by the work of creatures like Pete Peterson, are to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state and transfer even more money to the already wealthy. Ranting about the deficit is merely a means to this end, if it facilitates goals such as the elimination of Social Security and Medicare.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen probably don’t consciously believe that they are ideologically committed to immiserating the working class in order to further enrich themselves and their ultra-rich friends; as career journalists, they have no doubt internalized the bizarre conceit that they are merely objective chroniclers with no political orientation whatsoever. Nevertheless, defending plutocracy is, functionally, their ideology, for it is the ideology of the elite–and by promoting the fantasy of non-ideological “bipartisanship”, they further the agenda of those who are already powerful. If the reporters themselves actually believe in their centrist platitudes, so much the better; as the philosopher Costanza once remarked, “it’s not a lie if you believe it”.

But by conflating partisanship and ideology, elite discourse tends to discredit the latter; thus, just as elites tend to cloak their ideological program in the veil of post-partisanship, contemporary popular movements sometimes attempt to do the same. But they, too, are ideological whether they want to be or not. Some of this is on display in the Occupy Wall Street protests: these have been characterized by an almost obsessive desire to avoid specific ideologies or even specific demands, in a way that tends to grate on those of us with more traditional leftist sensibilities. Doug Henwood recently commented on this in a post where he lamented the ideological confusion of the protesters, and quoted a 25-year-old photographer stating that the protests were “not about left versus right” but about “hierarchy versus autonomy”.

The uncharitable reading of this is that it reflects a naive avoidance of politics and the worldview of, as Doug puts it, bourgeois individualism. But a more generous reading is that this man is simply partaking of the same collapsing of ideology and partisanship that pervades the society he grew up in. If you’re 25 years old, there’s a good chance you haven’t had much or any contact with what remains of an actual “left” in this country; instead, your experience of politics will be one in which “left versus right” is used interchangeably with “Democrats versus Republicans”. In other words, a discourse in which ideology is reduced to an empty, symbolic partisanship. Rather than an attempt to deny ideology and politics, we can see statements like the one I quoted as an attempt, however confused, to reclaim them from the clutches of the major parties and their hack apologists. Because whatever they might say, Occupy Wall Street has an ideology, even if it is still an inchoate and jumbled one. Mike Konczal has done some excellent work trying to extract that ideology from the protests themselves and the “We are the 99 percent” Tumblr; meanwhile, the right clearly recognizes it as an ideological challenge as well, which is why their polemicists are producing counter-programming like We Are the 53 Percent.

That’s not to say that the obsession with centrism and post-partisanship hasn’t infected the masses to some degree as well. The other day I was listening to an NPR call-in show about Occupy Wall Street, and I heard the kind of infuriating caller you often get on these programs, who lamented extremism and polarization and said that we need to work together with Wall Street to solve our problems, blah blah blah. But positions like that are only tenable in the wake of the elite campaign to efface all conflicts of interest or ideology, and replace them with the illusion that there is some technocratic compromise that would equally benefit the 99% and the 1%. Barack Obama’s latest move on behalf of that campaign is his bizarre argument that the democratic socialist Martin Luther King “would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there”. But this is no time to shrink from a bit of demonization. The best thing leftists can do to combat this sort of nonsense, then, is to help draw out and clarify the implicit class ideology of the protestors, rather than condemn them for not drawing political demarcations in the way we would prefer; as the young Marx put it, “We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”