Urgency and Opportunity in the Debate to Define “Change”
by Matthew Andrews
The panic among liberals was palpable on the eve of Scott Brown’s insurgent victory to become Massachusetts’ Republican junior senator. The general election was supposed to be a dull affair after the four way race for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Yet in the final weeks of a truncated campaign, despite the holidays and wintery weather, Scott Brown surged from a fifteen point deficit in the polls to defeat Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
On election day I received a phone call from an acquaintance who urged me to vote, describing Brown as a male version of Sarah Palin. In my email a subject line read, “VOTE, VOTE, VOTE.” As I walked down the street in Porter Square, Cambridge, Martha Coakley supporters were not merely holding signs, but pacing up and down the sidewalk, shouting at pedestrians and cars. Coakley ran an uninspired campaign, ambivelant about Afghanistan and flip-flopping on the anti-abortion provisions proposed in the national healthcare legislation. Fear-mongering and eleventh hour visits from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not enough to reverse the tide.
Kennedy was treated like royalty in Massachusetts. Like a monarch, he held office until his dying day. Afterwards, the press heaped praise on him and framed the story, “Who will take Kennedy’s seat?” It seemed like a question of inheritance until the final debate when Scott Brown said “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat. (Boston Globe, 1/19/10)” In a state where Edward Kennedy held a senate seat for 47 years, Scott Brown captured the populist mantel of “change.”
Elections have the elusive power to energize an otherwise apathetic public. More than 2.2 million people cast ballots, matching the turnout of the 2006 governor’s race (Boston Globe, 1/19/10). Democrats are now reevaluating their strategy for governance while Republicans gauge their prospects for the mid-term elections in 2010. Socialists should be the students of elections as well. But our goal should be to grasp the inspirational power of elections and direct it toward socialist candidates, mass movements, and a systemic critique of the government’s failure to address current crises.
According to Gallup, the electorate of the “bluest state in the nation” is only 35% Democrat, with 49% registered independent of any party affiliation. Yet nominally “non-partisan” polls constantly compare approval ratings between the Democrats and the Republicans, reinforcing the assumption that the two-party system encompasses all political perspectives. Their own numbers demonstrate disapproval for both political parties. Lawrence Lessig of the campaign finance reform advocacy group Change Congress says, “It’s because we have a system in Washington that simply does not — will not — allow the kind of change we urgently need.” The opportunity exists for a well organized political movement to capture this popular discontent and steer it toward an anti-capitalist analysis. If we fail however, Scott Brown may only be the beginning of a more conservative reaction.
An average of polls put together by Real Clear Politics as of January 20th puts Congress’s job approval rating at a dismal 24.5%, with disapproval at 66.3%. More people supported the British Crown at the time of the American Revolution than support Congress today. (Lawrence Lessig of Change Congress) Obama is only fairing moderately better, with a 50% approval rating (Gallup).
I recently attended a film screening on Venezuela. Afterward, several audience members lamented the US corporate media and asked how Chávez succeeded in a similarly harsh media climate. I suggest however that Chávez’s popularity is not the amazing aberration, but our acquiescence to corporate messaging. We lack not only independent media, but community spaces, political relationships, and the free time to discuss ideas and formulate our own opinions. We are the historically unique society which has ceded its popular culture to the hands of giant corporations. The Venezuelan people simply have not.
Most voters (already a relatively political sub-section of the overall population) do not engage current issues outside of elections. Those that do are mostly indoctrinated into supporting the perspective of one or another competing element within the ruling class. Few entertain their own interests outside the framework provided by the political parties and corporate media. It is this lack of engagement that allows Scott Brown to masquerade as a populist when he is pro-war, anti-civil rights, anti-choice, and anti-healthcare.
The day before the election, twenty of the most committed and principled activists I know joined outside the Park Street train station to protest Obama’s broken promise to close Guantánamo and abolish torture. Commuters hurried by as we spoke into a megaphone about the Cuban 5, immigrant rights, secret prisons abroad, inner-city prisons at home, and the phony war on terror. On this Martin Luther King Day the crises of the world seemed to be converging to put new life in his words:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…" We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.