The Error of an Era: The End of Elections

8 06 2012

The failure of Tom Barrett to beat Scott Walker in Tuesday’s recall election was probably about a lot of things. For social historians of this era, though, it will be this: a miscalculation of epic proportions, an error that defines the post-Citizens United era.

The public rage after Governor Walker instituted his de facto recission of public workers’ collective bargaining rights was palpable and widespread. It was by no means universal, but it brought together lots of people who felt targeted, misled, and who saw the legislation as an existential threat to their economic security and well-being. Wisconsin’s public sector after all is storied–Wisconsin passed the country’s first public worker collective bargaining law–and public sector workers in that state came from all partisan stripes and economic classes.

The direct action that resulted, occupation of the capitol building, was a reasonable response. The decision to turn all of that activist energy into an election campaign was fatally misguided.

I argued, on the heels of the Citizens United decision, that the left could finally admit that elections are not a feasible method of obtaining particularly economic goals, and that it should begin exploring alternative, direct action methods; particularly, occupations, work stoppages, and boycotts:

With the electoral process eliminated as a viable strategy, resources can finally be diverted to organizing at the community and workplace level. All this decision does is remind us that a small number of corporations–by no means corporations generally–have accumulated much too much power and wealth.

On the single issue of collective bargaining rights, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were united on an activist level. Millions more agreed in spirit, if not enough to take any sort of direct action. The conditions were ripe for some kind of direct action that would have forced the government’s hand–a work stoppage, boycotts of public services, occupations of facilities. The millions of dollars and the thousands of hours of activist energy spent on an election campaign, if diverted to direct action, could not only have ground the machinery of the state to a halt, but would also have created a well-organized, on-the-ground organization of activists who have worked together, fought together, and developed invaluable social relationships. The attendant electoral advantage would have expressed itself naturally in November and again in subsequent elections.

Elections are no longer a fruitful means for progressive change. Citizens United cemented in fact something that was already more or less true: the wealthy, both corporations and individuals, have an outsize influence on elections that is nearly impossible to overcome. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, soaked as it was in Wall Street cash, was not an exception to this fact but an expression of it. Public intellectuals and activists who advocate for elections as a way to achieve any fundamental reform are wrong in every instance. Increasingly, their only arguments will be negative ones–“The other side is worse”–and, with each passing election, we’ll see that even where elections are won, the power of the ultra-wealthy will be such that public relations campaigns and lobbying smother legislative initiatives in the crib.

Corporate power has purchased the electoral process. Pouring any more money and energy into it is not worthwhile at all. It’s over. Volunteering for or giving money to an election campaign is a waste of that time and money in every instance. Debate and discussion about the variable merits of candidates, the positioning of candidates on issues, fundraising, relative strength in different states and among different demographics, is not a serious use of anybody’s time or intellect.

For the foreseeable future, in other words, electioneering and election work–fundraising, door-knocking, blogging, running for office, whatever it is–is in no way progressive or left wing, in each and every instance. To the contrary; it’s essentially the political equivalent of playing the lottery, a habitual distraction predicated on infinitesimally small chances of achieving anything, and in that way it diverts resources from real change and is inherently conservative, biased towards the status quo.

Wealth, or capital, engages in direct action all the time: capital flight and strike threats are the basis for almost every piece of nasty legislation, and every corporate welfare or tax giveback, that state, local, and the federal government have passed for years. All the talk about “increasing confidence” for “job creators,” is a different way of saying appeasing striking capital. It’s the direct action that makes the change. The left for some reason has become hypnotized by chimera of electoral change, and we see the result: even when the left wins an election, they can achieve little, rebalance power not at all, and income inequality and debt peonage grows and grows.





Gas and Cigarettes and Addiction Funding

25 05 2012

So here’s an interesting problem for students of how cities operate.

Public health and public transportation are two of the marquee issues for planners, and they’re intertwined. Land use planners have recently turned towards policies that encourage walkability, bikeability, and “transit-oriented development.” Mayor Emanuel’s administration is currently undertaking an impressive, ambitious plan to introduce more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, of the type found on Kinzie Avenue between Jefferson and Wells. Decreasing reliance on cars is a public health issue because it makes it easier for people to be active, and decreases vehicle emissions that pedestrians encounter as they move around the city. Similarly, the Affordable Care Act had provisions for public/private community health facilities with a focus on patient outcomes rather than fee-for-service models that merely encourage remedial care.

Two of the main sources of funding for public transportation and public health (particularly as the latter is undergirded by state Medicaid) are gasoline and cigarette taxes, respectively. You can see the immediate problem; the better transportation and health systems are designed, the more they must compromise the source of their funding. With transportation, this creates the most immediate problem: with increased volatility of gasoline taxes and a sharp increase in ridership, ill-equipped public transportation systems need more and more money to handle the increase (the fares are never enough to capitalize increased infrastructural capacity).

A brief by the American Public Transportation Association touches on this problem; as public transportation ridership increases, capacity needs increase even while revenues drop. Because fares will never be sufficient for real expansion of capacity, there’s a systemic knot that can’t be untied without a federal-state-local approach to overhauling the funding system.

Obviously, there’s a similar problem with the vice-and-obesity taxes on things like cigarettes, alcohol, and fast and junk food. Where these revenues are meant to fund necessities–community health care in particular–the fact that the tax exists as a “disincentive” to unhealthy decision making implies the outcomes we want–healthier city living–are not really priorities. The addiction persists.





Student Loans and Clientage

14 05 2012

Mike Konczal, a man after my own heart on most issues, posted a link to an article from the 1980s discussing the student loan system as a recrudescent form of the indentured servitude system that was once used a way to finance the importation of needed cheap labor. It’s a fascinating and prescient analysis, and it also reminds me of another troubling trend that has reemerged as a function of the accelerating concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer persons and institutions.

One of the most interesting things about the American Revolution that we don’t learn about in most high school curricula is the profound changes in social organization and relations that it wrought. Of particular interest to me is the breakdown of the patron/client system, a patriarchal system as old as the Roman republic. The breakdown of that system put stress on the ancient institutions of slavery and patriarchy and culminated in the civil rights movements of the 20th Century.

The patron/client system was so universal as to probably be invisible to the Revolutionary generation; indeed, many of them were practitioners of it, which you quickly realize if you’ve ever read their correspondence. Because of the way property, and through it institutional political power, was held, currying favor with “important men” either personally or through marriage was the standard way young ambitious men (and it was just men) moved up in the world. Before credit ratings and statutes forbidding negative job references without permission, access to the property and influence of important men was the only way, or rather the surest way, to secure the resources necessary to build a business, enter a profession, and be taken seriously in politics and even the arts.

Before the abolition of primogeniture and entail (first abolished by Georgia in 1777), wealth, particularly in the form of property, was difficult to dislodge. Thus the head of a household would inherit a typically undisturbed, massive estate, and the various dependents associated with it: not only household staff and laborers, but also the attorneys and middle managers who ran various enterprises, political allies who owed allegiance in return for appointments to desirable government commissions, and so forth. Communities, even in cities outside of the nascent dense industrial pockets, were structured this way. A young climber would identify himself in part by his association with a particular family and structure his life–his social obligations, clubs, career, education, and of course marriage–based on that association. Association with a family or group of families compelled a type of loyalty that is absent today, requiring from the client fealty to the political and business ambitions of his patron, up to and including whom he could vote for, marry, and entertain.

The immiseration of labor over the last forty years has brought us back to a similar, though much more impersonal, situation. The ambitious young person today, particularly in the professions, has a very narrow range of options for very practical reasons: the financing for meaningful education requires significant debt, and the jobs that allow for manageable service of that debt are concentrated in fewer and fewer firms and sub-fields. Professionals graduate with enormous debt that quickly becomes unmanageable if you do not go to work for a major employer, or have access to significant capital to start your own business.

Unpaid internships are the most stark example of this new patron/client program. Just getting a valued internship often requires connections either through a university that, in turn, requires wealth and connections to get into, or through a familial or social relation. These internships are often necessary to “build relationships,” i.e., curry favor, with one of the small coterie of institutions controlling immense marketshare. They’re also often subsidized by family wealth, reinforcing the representation of socially connected elements of the upper classes in the professions, political institutions, and the arts.

The need for debt to finance education is unique to those outside of the upper classes. In turn, debt places pressure on those individuals to contour their professional practices and social lives to secure favor with the comparably small social cohort that enjoys control over capital and how it is spent.

The result is much different from meritocracy. While not a mirror of the essentially hereditary and patriarchal patronage systems of pre-Revolution America (and pre-Augustine Rome), the debt requirement for access to the only institutions that grant any kind of economic security has impersonalized the patronage system while serving its basic function: to keep wealth within a particular social milieu, with a hefty cost of admission that requires de facto conformity with particular sets of values and norms that contribute to class cohesion.

Here’s a picture of my dog:

From the Liz Claiborne Canine Collection. Moda.





A Word on Burke & Slating Judges

25 01 2011

Commenter Pete asks:

Ramsin, the Tribune points out today that Judges Hoffman and Hall were both originally “slated” by Ed Burke’s party committee. What does slating typically entail? Just making someone the nominee? Or is there financial backing as well?

Slating is the process whereby the Cook County Democratic Organization selects candidates to endorse for elective positions. Typically a person is slated through sponsorship by committeeperson, and then approved by the organization in slating sessions. Typically the County organization then gives cash or in-kind support to slated candidates if they’re in tough fights. For judges, this usually means inclusion on official literature and palm cards. Thanks for the question Pete.
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Make Sense, Be Honest: Emanuel’s Ballot Access

24 01 2011

(cross-posted from GB)

There’s a lot of political schadenfreude going around in reaction to an Illinois Appellate Court decision to remove Rahm Emanuel from the municipal election ballot. A local objector filed suit to prevent Emanuel’s candidacy, with the argument that Emanuel failed to meet the requirement that candidates for local office in Chicago both be a qualified elector (i.e., voter) and have “resided” in Chicago for a year before the election.

The latest turn in Emanuel’s on-going legal troubles in getting on the ballot was a shock to many (but not all), and has naturally led to indignation at the injustice done to voters (i.e., “Let the voters decide!”) and the justice of the universe (“He’s buying the election! He failed to meet the letter of the law!”)

I implore everyone to take a breath and consider their arguments outside of the election fight context for this one instance; in a post-Bush v Gore society, we can’t afford any more “I’ll cheer when it helps and screech when it hurts” approaches to legal decisions like this.

The Opinion and Dissent

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The Inanity of the Objective Press

5 11 2010
Chip Inn.jpg

Former Progress Illinois editor in chief Josh Kalven and I, over drinks at the Chipp Inn in Noble Square, lamented the state of political journalism. Reiterating something he’d said at a panel discussion at the Hideout, he told me that he wasn’t certain why there was so much discussion about the legitimacy of bloggers as journalists in the context of their “biases.” Everybody has predispositions and opinions, he said, at least readers know from what point of view so-called “partisan” media comes from. Traditional journalists aren’t free of those predispositions, they are just instructed to hide them.

This was on everybody’s mind in particular after an experiment by Slate wherein they disclosed for whom all their writers voted. This was supposedly a painful thing for a news outlet to do, because it would “discredit” what their writers were saying.

Just this week, MSNBC suspended host Keith Olbermann when Politico reported that he had donated money to candidates he had interviewed on his show Countdown. Presumably, this represented some nebulous conflict-of-interest, wherein Olbermann was concealing the fact that he actively supports Democrats for public office from his audience. This reminds me of when Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf was suspended for failing to disclose he’d donated lemon bars to the Republican Guard Alumni Booster Club.
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Why I Vote in Iraq

9 03 2010

I admit to being conflicted about whether or not to vote in the Iraqi “OCV” or out-of-country voting elections held over the weekend here in Chicago (and in dozens of locations around the world), an admission that would earn me pretty nasty accusations of being uncaring or betraying the Assyrians still in Iraq. Iraqi Assyrians are counting on a strong turnout in the OCV voting to balance the regular vote theft that happens locally and to give an extra nudge to the most popular Assyrian slate, al-Rafidain, the slate of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the largest and most active Assyrian political organization in Iraq.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Iraqi OCV Voting in Chicago“, posted with vodpod

Nevertheless, I don’t live in Iraq. And while I do care deeply about what happens there, the results of the election won’t effect me in any way as deeply as it effects the people who do live there. Why should my vote, made half a world way and with no understanding of the day-to-day life of people in Iraq, count as much as the vote of some nineteen year old whose only life experience is war and occupation and who desperately wants to believe that democracy can make a difference in his life?

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