The Affirmative Action Election

Vijay PrashadAs

we approach the calendar end of the Christian millennium, we, as progressives,

are posed with an electoral choice that has begun to startle me. So much

commentary seems to go by these days on what appears to be the only election

worth anything, that for the US presidency. The bourgeois media defines

‘politics’ by its shallow coverage of personalities and of their ‘position,’ and

this year much of this interest seems to be (as Michael Lerner of Tikkun put it)

on the reduction of morality to personal sexual matters rather than the wider

ethics of life (economic exploitation, sexual oppression, etc). And the

progressive press seems to find that it needs to support one or another of the

candidates, with the <Nation> first going after the tepid Bill Bradley and

now the decided champion of Ralph Nader. We’ve now left the world of the Lesser

Evil, it seems, and entered the terrain of the Lesser Lesser Evil. To vote or

not to vote, to uphold one’s personal integrity with a vote for a Lesser Lesser

Evil or to vote with one’s feet and be truly above it all.


not in favor of the Lesser (or Lesser Lesser) Evil argument, nor do I care much

for the theory that one should abjure the electoral arena. In 1913, Bordiga and

his Karl Marx Circle in Naples argued against the Socialist Party’s inability to

respond to and channel popular aspirations (such as against an increase in

tariffs and corrupt electorialism). Bordiga and Co. argued that the elections

must be fought by a totally independent socialist party to expose the class

character of democracy. ‘The social revolution,’ he wrote, ‘is a political fact

and is prepared on the political terrain. Electoral neutralism means neutralism

of consciousness and opinion.’ Political independence, from this Marxist

tradition, means that one works amongst the people in coherent struggles (police

brutality, prisons, economic injustice, welfare, abortion, equal pay for equal

work, anti-IMF/WTO), just as these struggles mature toward the creation of

sufficient strength that those who run for political office (in parties that are

committed to these mass struggles) are more often led by, rather than lead, the

dynamic of struggle. Few of us talk these days of the value of political

independence, and we seem to want one messiah after another to appear from above

to save us (the Green Party is only one small formation on the Left, and it too

is not present at most of those mass struggles that seem to set the tempo for us

these days — such as in the fights against police brutality, against the

confederate flag, against welfare reform, etc., fights, in sum, that are about

the structural adjustment of the lives of working-class people of color in the



Bordiga, who is clear on political independence, wrote of Italy, which even in

1913 had a far more democratic parliamentary-type system than we have in this

winner-take-all presidentialism. That is the rub of my frustration with our

discussions: we do not have much stock in political independence, and we hope

that extant institutions can provide some succor for the Left. But the political

system in this country is structured to provide stability for capital against

the aspirations of the working-class. American exceptionalism does not so much

stem from the fact that sections of the US working-class enjoyed the perks of US

imperialism and failed to produce a political labor movement: I see this

exceptionalism in the political system created to crush dissent against the rule

of property. Go back and read the <Federalist Papers,> in which

representatives of the two major parties of the day (Madison and Hamilton) went

after each other on certain points, but agreed that their system of governance

was ‘sometimes necessary as a defense of the people against their own temporary

errors and delusions’ (#63). In the aftermath of the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion

against the property qualifications for voting, Hamilton noted that the peculiar

US ‘democracy’ was to ensure that property holders could ‘repress domestic

faction and insurrection.’ He got no substantial argument from Madison, a sure

sign that the two-party convergence is not a recent problem, but strikes at the

core of the US arrangements to befuddle the populace into the belief that we

live in a ‘democracy.’


we have Bush/Cheney, Gore/Lieberman, Nader, Buchanan/Foster (by the way, the

press is incorrect to say that Ezola Foster is the first black candidate to seek

the vice presidency. In 1932, the vice presidential candidate for the Communist

Party USA was James W. Ford, a prominent African American member of the party;

since then Angela Davis has run on the same ticket). The field is, without a

doubt, unimpressive. On the issues Nader looks the best, but only on some

issues. On anti-racist justice, each is as poor as the other. And these people

all know about justice on the basis of ‘race.’ After all, most of them went to

college thanks to good old fashioned US affirmative action, at least Bush did.

What college would have taken a man with his scores but only a college that

could not afford to let go of a generational connection to wealth? Many years

ago, in India, a friend of mine applied to Yale University. In his letter he

asked for financial aid with the facetious remark that since the college was

funded by the plunder of Elihu Yale whilst in Madras in the 1700s, the

scholarship would be a kind of retribution. Yale did not admit him. But born of

the profits of rapine, Yale was happy to take in George W. Bush, who had

everything given to him by legacy, even his name. Yale was also briefly the home

to Cheney, it is the alma mater of Lieberman, and Gore worked just down the road

at Yale’s elder sibling, Harvard. This is an Ivy League election.


it is also an election about affirmative action. Our presidential candidates

went to college under the umbrella of the legacy system, by which (now) 20% of

Harvard’s incoming class are children of alumni. Legacy was admittedly a system

set-up in the 1920s to stem Jewish admission to Ivy-League colleges (it was not

to entirely succeed in this anti-Semitic ploy). In 1992, Harvard admitted more

legacy students than Black, Chicano, Amerindian and Puerto Rican students

combined. Gore and Bush are the legacy candidates of the new millennium, giving

a new definition to ‘equality of opportunity’ and to merit. But this is just a

side-note, to remind us that our candidates at this exalted level enjoy the

fruits of affirmative action from above as they disparage (to different degrees)

affirmative action from below.


of my friends say that a vote for Nader will send a strong message to the

Democratic Party, to put them on notice and see that they change their ways.

This is just the kind of attitude that befuddles me. On the one hand, we are

told that to vote for the Republicrats is to waste a vote, since both are

essentially so very similar, that they have converged on several issues into the

ghastly middle. If this is so, the Democrats cannot be redeemed, so a vote for

Nader will do nothing to the entrenched (and complacent) world of the two

parties. They don’t care what happens, particularly if Buchanan and Nader take

the same percentage points off one or the other party. Buchanan is Bush’s

spoiler; Nader will do the same for Gore. With about seven or eight points out

of the elections, the two parties will fight for the rest on parity. No big

message to anyone here.


are many local races in all our regions that carry the possibility for the small

voice of democracy to be heard. Let me give you two examples from my city,

Hartford, CT. In the 4th District, Evelyn Mantilla has won twice to the state

house and is now running unopposed. Elected with strong support from the Left,

this young Puerto Rican woman overcame an opposition that attacked her marriage

to another woman, but they could not defeat her at the polls. The reason is that

over the years Mantilla has been part of the Left which fought on several

issues, mainly housing and health care, and she is not the leader of the motion,

but only a part of a dynamic that is not demobilized and which keeps her

accountable. Her working-poor community has stood behind her against homophobic

pastors and others mainly because she has not abandoned the energetic mass base

that is not massified. At the city council, Elizabeth Horton Sheff returned to

office on the Green Party ticket last year. A legend in the area because her

son’s name appears in the school desegregation case of our time, Sheff vs.

O’Neill and because she was part of the People for a Change slate that won the

mayoralty almost a decade ago, Sheff is also alive to the movements against

police brutality and for economic empowerment in this city. She is given the

room to maneuver at the city council only because she stands alongside a

partial, but still alive, movement on the streets (from which she does not seek

to distance herself). We can all name such people who allow us to generate

enthusiasm among the masses of people for political fights. At least here we

don’t have to show up with a long story about the Lesser of Lesser Evils,

especially ones that are fated to lose (and if they win will tend to disappoint

us more often than not — can I get a full account of your positions, please,

Mr. Nader, rather than hear such off-handed comments as ‘gonadal politics’? Why

do I sometimes get the feeling that you are not really concerned with

anti-racist justice or with sexual liberation? What ‘better’ choice is this? And

on the economy, prove this isn’t just a parochial protectionism?).


reenergized progressive base with a political independence. This is a far more

worthwhile goal, even if it forces us to shift our temporal perspective (we

can’t win tomorrow, maybe the next day). If we can galvanize such a base in our

many localities (and work simultaneously on the national stage as at Seattle,

A16, Philly, LA, in South Carolina against the confederate flag, etc), then we

can stake a claim at some later date for the transformation of this corrupt

political system, one that has since its inception served the interests of a

small coterie of the rich. There are too many progressives who evince too much

faith in the system, as if this exceptional US attempt at constitutional

democracy has solved our civilizational problems, and if only Bradley or Nader

took office things would not degenerate into the slime of Clintonianism. Come

off it. The political system we have is at its root committed to those with

capital, whether it acts in the soft face of Clinton (who can conduct welfare

‘reform’ and criminalize immigrants with a frog in his throat) or the hard face

of Bush (who can execute people with certain glee). Most talk on Nader-Bradley-Gore,

etc., serves to delude us that the Lesser of the Lesser Evil or the Lesser Evil

himself can deliver some good. These affirmative action babies are going to rule

again, and our political dependence will be further ensured. Fight that!


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