Outside the Asylum
It’s kind of harsh, and a little shocking, that I have to explain to anyone why voting for the prison labor ticket is not a blow against racism. It’s kind of harsh, and a little shocking, that people as smart as Matt Taibbi and Cornel West think that they can vote for the prison labor ticket and yet maintain some kind of political distinction between themselves and it which would allow them to remain critical of it in any meaningful way. It’s even a little surprising that neither Dr. West nor Mr. Taibbi seems to perceive the quality of the insult the Democratic party has just paid, not only to them, but to everyone dedicated to racial justice.
There are a lot of black women who are Democrats, many black women who are Democratic politicians, and several that come to mind who have achieved the stature necessary to be nominated for Vice President of the United States. How many black women are there in the United States who made their name and their money putting black and brown people in jail, and keeping them there in order to extract extremely low-paid labor ($1.45 an hour) from their bodies for the state? I'd guess very few. How many black women of political stature did they have to pass over in order to find one who climbed up to prominence on the back of disproportionately black and brown prison labor? Do we have more than one black woman like that in our country? I can't think of another one.
In fact, the selection of Kamala Harris was such a bad choice it had to be on purpose. Melding her into one ticket with the lead sponsor of the 1994 crime bill makes the conclusion inescapable. What do Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have in common? They like to put black and brown people in jail, and keep rich white men out of it. Steve Mnuchin is only free to be Trump’s Treasury Secretary because Kamala Harris refused to prosecute him for stealing people’s houses through fraud—despite having ample evidence to do so. During the Democratic primary, African-American Democrats rejected Harris as soon as her terrible record became known (see "Kamala Harris's Criminal Justice Record Killed Her Presidential Run," by Lara Bazelon, for a more complete rundown of that record, https://theappeal.org/kamala-harris-criminal-justice-record-killed-her-p...
though Bazelon does not include the instance where Harris' office argued that marijuana offenders should be kept in jail to fight wildfires, which you can find here: https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/prisoners-are-getting-paid-14...).
This is a calculated insult, designed to measure exactly how much people are willing to accept. It’s also designed to measure whether the Big Lie will actually fly with people of color in this country. Can we get them to cheer on two proponents of the racist criminal justice system at the same time that they wave Black Lives Matter signs?
Actually, the very idea that anybody inside the Democratic party can make meaningful criticisms of Democratic leadership has no basis in fact. If there’s one thing that has been proven over the past ten years, it’s that the Democratic party has no tolerance for dissent. Their response to criticism ranges from impervious indifference to coordinated media hatchet jobs done on anyone who dares to object to their views. In fact, the dissatisfaction of Democratic voters has, since 1994, led to no change I can see, either in policy or politics. And why should it, when the leadership knows that any and all criticism will be abandoned as soon as a Republican challenge to Democratic power comes along?
As for politics, most of the people who run the Democratic party have been in power for fifteen to thirty years: Pelosi, Schumer, Feinstein, Rahm Emanuel, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, both the Clintons, and, of course, Joe Biden. Even Harris has been a powerful establishment figure for seventeen years. The Democratic base has been criticizing these people, and wanting them to move left, for fifteen to thirty years, to no avail.
And why is that? Perhaps it’s because the various rebellions we’ve been offered aren’t real. Even when we’re being sold the idea that left-wing rebellion is burbling in the belly of the Democratic party, it actually isn’t. Look at the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and a handful of other young, supposedly progressive women of color got into Congress and formed an alliance. They openly disagreed with the leadership. From the left.
Sound the trumpets! We’re going to storm the Bastille!
Well, no. We aren’t. Actually, Ocasio-Cortez voted for Nancy Pelosi to remain leader of the House Democrats. When people asked her why she, a rebellious change agent, supported the woman who had been leading the House Democrats for the past sixteen years, Cortez answered: “because Pelosi was the most progressive one running.”
Even if power came from somewhere to support a left-wing rebellion in the Democratic party—say, if someone found an example of the near-extinct Homo pecuniarius moralis in the New Jersey Pine Barrens or on the slopes of Mount Denali—that hypothetical conscientious rich man would never choose Ocasio-Cortez, or anyone who could make such an argument, as his change agent. How could he? The argument itself precludes change. You don’t get political change by selecting it off a predetermined menu of choices provided to you by the ruling elite. You’re trying to transform the country, not order brunch.
As for policy, in the broadest sense, it has not changed since 1994. The Clintons and their friends decided to take the Democratic party to the right, and in the thirty years since they made that decision, nothing and no one has altered that trajectory. In 2020, as in 1994, the Democratic party supports war, the fossil fuel industry, a deregulated financial system, a predatory economy, a captured regulatory system, the parasitical health insurance industry, and a racist criminal justice system. In 2020, as in 1994, the Democratic party opposes the possibility of peace. It opposes the possibility of creating an energy economy based on something other than fossil fuels. It opposes reinstating the New Deal banking regulations which protected us for decades, and against which Clinton Democrats themselves led the successful assault. It opposes a non-profit healthcare system (something that’s rarely even discussed), and even opposes a system which would provide actual universal health insurance, instead preferring that triumph of Orwellian language, the Affordable Care Act. It opposes modifications of—or the outright abandonment of—NAFTA, CAFTA and all the other cartel diplomacy, and is happy to leave the United States a banana republic declining into a failed state. It opposes applying the rule of law to rich and powerful men, and is happy to continue pouring billions or even trillions of dollars in bailouts down a bunch of white-collar sneak thieves while keeping a disproportionately black and brown population in the prisons so that underpaid labor can be extracted from their bodies.
Above all, it opposes returning political power to the people. The four-year-long Sanders movement, like a canary in a coal mine, has finally made it clear that in this place, there is nothing left to breathe.
The last real choice Democrats got to make, on a federal level, was the choice between Obama and Clinton. That was a real choice, as far as it went; the Obama wing had a few differences of opinion with the Clinton wing, mostly in the realm of foreign policy. A Hillary Clinton administration would never have negotiated the Iran agreement, because Hillary Clinton had no objection to nuclear war. (Her supporters apparently either shared Hillary’s lack of concern that the United States might get into a hot war with both China and Russia, or didn’t realize the nature of their candidate’s views.) Obama, being the most rational and intelligent of the authoritarians, had a more sensible view of geopolitics.
But if Obama was the least worst in terms of policy, he made up for it by transforming American politics into an entirely authoritarian landscape. In order to make American politics authoritarian, there had to be authoritarians controlling both of the political parties. That was easy for the Republican Party; many of their voters were Republicans precisely because they were authoritarian. It was trickier for the Democrats, and I’m guessing several political think tanks ransacked the houses of liberal doctrine for some time looking for a justification for blind obedience. They found the Left’s weak underbelly: the idea that members of oppressed minority groups cannot be wrong, whether in the sense of inaccuracy and error, or in the sense of morality and good judgement. White liberals are squeamish about disagreeing with a member of one of those minority groups, fearful of being branded a bigot. So the Democratic party’s political advisers, whether from a consulting firm, a think tank, or Langley, decided to use Obama’s blackness as a way of silencing anyone who disagreed with his policies. Once it was established that disagreeing with Obama meant you were a bigot, Obama himself became a political version of a money-laundering operation; the most disgusting policies and people could be washed clean by his approval. When some people didn’t want to play that game, and criticized those policies, they also had to criticize Obama, which played right into the hands of the authoritarians.
Thus, Obama, who ran on change, instead enforced unity of a kind dear to all authoritarians: anyone disagreeing with the leader became unacceptable to decent folk. Accusations of racism became the club with which the powerful silenced their critics. The moral authority of the fight against racism was appropriated by the rich men who actually run the country, most of whom are white, via the color of Barack Obama’s skin. As long as Obama himself continued to support the policies those rich white men wanted from government, it was as if the rich white men themselves, through him, were wielding the moral authority of anti-racism. Apparently, that strategy worked so well that we're going to stick with it, and apparently, most black people, at least most black people who are speaking publicly, have no problem with this version of the movement for black power and liberation.
According to Mr. Taibbi, we’re supposed to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris but not legitimate them. That political strategy is close to incoherent if we’re living in a republic. The entire idea of a republic is that the people express their will through the vote. They have an impact on politics and policy via "legitimating" one candidate or another by voting for them. And if we’re not living in a republic, these elections are a sham, and our votes are too.
H/t to Cassiodorus, whose essay "Trump-weariness" brought Taibbi's essay to my attention.