Sunday, December 27, 2020

Breaking bad: AOC and #forcethevote

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Jimmy Dore

by Frank Brenner


History can be remorseless. That’s particularly true in a crisis, which eats away like acid at hypocrisy, lies, cowardice and zombie ideology. Would that such exposures were enough to rid the body politic of its accumulated bullshit. They often aren’t, but still, they’re not nothing.


One such exposure is going on right now. It concerns Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the progressives in the Democratic Congressional caucus. The exposure is being carried out by Jimmy Dore, a popular YouTube comedian turned political pundit and his campaign is called #forcethevote, as in getting a floor vote on the House of Representatives on the demand for Medicare for All (Med4All).


This demand is hugely popular: some 90 percent of Democrats support it and even a majority of Republicans! And never has the demand been more pressing. Because most Americans get health insurance through their employers and because the pandemic has cratered the economy, 14 million people have lost their coverage because they’ve lost their jobs. So the public health nightmare is compounded by a health insurance nightmare (which in turn worsens public health since people without insurance will go much longer and get much sicker before they seek medical care). For sheer callous indifference by the powers-that-be to human misery, this is hard to beat: we are in ‘let them eat cake’ territory. (Or maybe we should make that ‘let them eat ice cream’, given the food predilections of Nancy Pelosi.)


The support for Med4All is huge – but not among the Democratic politicians and their donor class. Joe Biden campaigned against it, Kamala Harris was a Senate sponsor of a Med4All bill but dropped her endorsement to suck up to Biden for the VP slot, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, embodiment of America’s ancien regime and mouthpiece for Silicon Valley zillionaires, has never allowed a vote on Med4All in the House. But therein lies a tiny but potentially highly embarrassing chink in the armor of ruling-class politics.


Every election cycle there’s a new vote for Speaker by all the members of the House. Pelosi is running for the position again, but because she did such a bang-up job the past two years, the Democrats lost ten seats – even though they were running against a sitting president presiding over a health and economic disaster. This means that the Democratic caucus has only about a ten-seat margin over the Republicans, and so if a small number of Democratic House members decide to withhold their votes from Pelosi, she could lose the speakership.


Which brings us to AOC, her fellow Squad members and other progressives among House Democrats. Together they have more than enough votes to block Pelosi’s election. Jimmy Dore has been banging the drum on this since November: the progressives now have leverage over Pelosi and they can use that to extract concessions from her – specifically to allow a floor vote on Med4All. It’s not like this is an abuse of power; as Dore says, this is exactly the way mainstream politics operates. Right-wing factions in the House (the laughably named ‘Freedom Caucus’ among the Republicans and the Blue Dog Democrats) have often done this sort of thing in to get concessions from their party bigwigs and score points with their political base. The progressives now have some leverage and there has never been a better time to rescue this issue from the political oblivion that the Nancy Antoinettes have consigned it to.


And yet AOC and the other progressives will not do this. Most of them are trying to shut Dore down by ignoring him, but this hasn’t worked out well since the campaign has caught fire on twitter and other social media. AOC has responded (not to Dore directly but to Justin Jackson, an NFL player passionate about Med4All) but her arguments are bogus, and Dore has been scathing in taking them apart on his show and on twitter. (One example of bogus: if we withhold our votes from Pelosi then the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, will become Speaker. First of all, as Dore nicely put it, so what? This would be a choice between one shit sandwich and another. But it isn’t even true: if Pelosi loses, McCarthy doesn’t automatically become Speaker, there’s another vote and anybody else, including another Democrat, can run for the job.)


Dore explains AOC’s position as being due to her putting her career ahead of her principles. There may be a good deal of truth to this, especially if (as Dore claims) she is now charging $75,000 to $100,000 for speaking engagements. But my guess is that the underlying cause is more political than personal: the all-too-common story of someone who starts out as an idealist but who gets co-opted by the pragmatic imperatives of working within the system. In political jargon there’s a revealing phrase for this – ‘institutional capture’.


Pelosi doesn’t want a floor vote on Med4All not only because she’s against it but also because it would force everybody in her caucus to show their hand politically. Like Kamala Harris, many of these politicians haven’t backed Med4All out of commitment so much as out of convenience, i.e., it’s good for getting out votes and raking in donations. But if it came to a floor vote in the House they’d have to stand up and be counted, and even for a craven careerist, it wouldn’t look good voting against medical coverage as hundreds of thousands of people are dropping dead in a pandemic. That means that Med4All would stand a good chance of passing in the House – and that would be a signal humiliation not only for Pelosi but also, especially, for Biden. Behind AOC’s flimsy rationalizations, the real story seems to be that she and her allies are leery of making the Democratic establishment uncomfortable.


(To spell out what should be obvious to any politically literate person: even a floor vote that goes down to defeat could have a tremendous impact, above all in the context of the ongoing pandemic massacre. As the podcaster Briahna Joy Gray, who was press secretary on the Sanders campaign, points out, forcing the vote would probably get a huge amount of media attention, especially given the story line of progressives holding Pelosi hostage, as it were, on this issue. And Gray makes another key point: Biden and the corporate Democrats have already come out for free medical treatment for Covid, but that in itself becomes a compelling argument for Med4All since there’s no good reason why treatment for cancer or heart disease, which kill even more people, should continue to cost money. A floor vote would help bring these glaring inconsistencies to the attention of millions and galvanize collective outrage against a political class whose only real reason for opposing the measure is because they are bought and paid for by private insurers, hospital corporations and big pharma. As I said, this should be obvious to any politically literate person but it’s being vehemently denied by AOC and her various apologists.)


Among the most effective things Dore does when he’s roasting AOC on his show is to play clips of interviews and campaigns vids of AOC herself. In one, from her first congressional campaign in 2018, she says: “What the Bronx needs is Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee and criminal justice reform. We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage.” In another clip, she is at pains to say that the Democratic party isn’t truly on the left, and to prove her point she says: “We can’t even get a floor vote on Medicare for All, not even a floor vote that gets voted down, we can’t even get a vote on it.” As Dore says, these clips amount to AOC “outing herself.” In another clip she declares that her job is to make life uncomfortable for those in power – and yet this is just what she and the other progressives are now refusing to do. Dore calls her out as being little more than “a twitter warrior” and in light of this episode it’s hard to argue with that.


There are broader implications here than just exposing the cowardice of progressives like AOC. To get at those implications it bears thinking a bit more about cowardice. What we usually mean by that is fear of doing the right thing – fear because of weakness and/or fear of failure. But what’s notable in this case isn’t the weakness of the progressives but rather their strength. They have the leverage to force an opponent to do something they believe in, something crucial to their political base – and yet they won’t use that strength. You could make a similar point about Bernie Sanders. In the campaigns he ran for president, he was able to garner tens of millions of votes – but both times when it came to the crunch he caved to the corporate Democrats. And for doing so he extracted nothing from the party establishment, not even so much as an appointment or two of progressives to Biden’s cabinet. Again, what’s going on here is surrender not out of weakness but out of strength. Dore has a good line about this: he says that the greatest abuse of power is not to use the power you have.


We tend to think of the American left as perpetually in crisis, marginalized and ineffectual, shouting into a howling wind. But that isn’t entirely accurate any more. To be sure, there are still huge problems faced by the left, notably the ball and chain of the Democratic party and the disintegration of the trade unions. But since the financial crisis of 2008 the political landscape has shifted as a new generation has emerged for whom capitalism is a dirty word. There is no Horatio Alger mystique to figures like Jeff Bezos. The comparison that he most often brings to mind is to the Robber Barons, and frankly even that doesn’t do justice to the grotesque economic inequities that Bezos personifies; he is more literally a Robber Baron than J. P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller in that his accumulation of wealth has reached neo-feudal extremes.


All of which is to say that history has conspired to provide progressive politicians with an opportunity to escape their marginalized predicament, if only on this one occasion. Suddenly they’re in a position to make a difference – and yet it turns out that they don’t really want to, which is what Dore has exposed. It’s a bit like a scene out of Kafka: you wait and wait for a chance to change things, and then when that chance finally comes along, you’ve become so ‘institutionally captured’ that you deny the chance exists. In effect you’ve become a political zombie.


The #forcethevote campaign has been trending for weeks on twitter and now is even getting some attention – predictably negative – in mainstream media (Washington Post, New York magazine). The campaign has gotten endorsements from a few prominent people such as actor Susan Sarandon, and Cornel West came on Dore’s show to do a supportive interview. Most left public intellectuals, though, aren’t saying anything, at least that I can see; here I’m thinking of people like Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky. Still the campaign has provoked an interesting debate on the left. The social democratic website Jacobin has weighed in to defend AOC, and their arguments are revealing.


I should specify that Jacobin is a hybrid of social democratic politics with academic Marxism. It’s the unofficial think tank of the Democratic Socialists (DSA), whose membership has grown exponentially in the Trump era. AOC and a couple of her fellow House progressives are DSA members, though this affiliation is little more than a label (which says as much about the DSA as it does about AOC). In the #forcethevote controversy, David Sirota, former speechwriter for Sanders, is the voice of ‘practical politics’ while Ben Burgis provides the ‘Marxist’ arguments.


Sirota’s position is that #forcethevote “isn’t a bad idea” but that it shouldn’t be the main focus of the fight for Med4All. Instead, he proposes 5 practical steps, including removing the chairman of the House and Ways Means committee and allowing states to create their own single-payer systems. Sirota makes no mention of Dore in the article but Dore nonetheless invited him on his show where they ended up in a screaming match. Dore’s comeback was that Sirota’s proposals were all fine but they didn’t replace the need to pressure Pelosi for a floor vote. As Dore said, Sirota’s position amounted to “throwing shade” on the #forcethevote campaign.


Sirota exemplifies a ‘nuts and bolts’ approach to left politics, and the most revealing thing he has to say is a defense of that approach against what he calls the “performative” approach of a campaign like #forcethevote. “Only asking for that performative vote – rather than also asking for things that might change the structural power dynamic – would be a waste, and yet another instance of progressives reverting to a feckless tradition of prioritizing spectacles rather than the wielding of actual power.”


Of course, no one supporting the campaign, including Dore, is “only asking” for that – this is a straw man. But this deprecating of “performative” politics is worth reflecting on. It’s certainly true that “prioritizing spectacles” has been a problem for the left – one thinks of Occupy, Antifa, identity politics. But there is performance and there is performance. The famous civil rights March on Washington and MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was also performance, as Dore pointed out, and so was the raid on Harper’s Ferry and Rosa Parks sitting on a bus – all ‘spectacles’ that transformed political consciousness. As for “the wielding of actual power”, which Sirota valorizes, that can easily morph into opportunism and careerism: you get lost in the weeds of getting on this committee or passing that amendment and soon enough you lose sight of any bigger picture or the crying needs of the people who voted you in. That tradition of ‘institutional capture’ has been, if anything, even more debilitating to the left than the “feckless” tradition of performative politics.


In the New York magazine article on #forcethevote, Eric Levitz encapsulates the ‘anti-performative’ stance thus: “A political tactic is only as moral as it is effective” – and by that light he argues that #forcethevote is immoral! This is to conceive of politics in purely pragmatic terms, which always touts itself as the only practical approach. But there is sleight-of-hand going on here: “effective” for what? If this means effective within the current structures of political power, then this is a ‘morality’ that amounts to subordinating oneself to those power structures. Or to put this more bluntly, it amounts to subservience to the powers-that-be. Any fundamental social change only happens through defying such subservience: it re-defines what is effective in terms of a higher moral imperative. (One might add that there is a long tradition of Marxists opposing pragmatism on these grounds, notably Trotsky’s scathing critique of what he called “bowing before the accomplished fact.”)


Ben Burgis has a similar take to Sirota, though if anything he is even more negative about #forcethevote as a tactic and doesn’t think it will have much impact as a symbolic gesture. The only wrinkle he adds to the argument is to condemn Dore and his supporters for holding a “voluntarist worldview” by which he means a belief that “anything is possible regardless of the objective political terrain”. This is a rather transparent case of loading the dice. For Burgis the “objective political terrain” is defined by Big Money’s domination of the levers of power, the lack of support for Med4All in Congress and the insufficiency of the grassroots movement backing Med4All. But Dore could well counter that the “objective political terrain” also includes a raging pandemic as well as the leverage House progressives have for now over Pelosi’s re-election as Speaker, and potentially also the impact that a floor vote under these conditions could have in inspiring a grassroots movement. The real issue isn’t voluntarism but agency: are progressives like AOC going to use the power they have in the current “objective political terrain” to raise mass political consciousness and thereby change that terrain or are they going to “bow before the accomplished fact” and stick to being “twitter warriors”?


Burgis is one of those ideologists who badmouth agency as voluntarism because he himself is no revolutionary but rather a gradualist. This is apparent from how he thinks Med4All will come about. It will be a long fight to build a mass workers' party in America, preferably also rebuilding the trade unions, and eventually such a party will have enough seats in Congress to make Med4All happen. Burgis says that no such thing is going to happen in this election cycle or the next, but it’s plain to see that realistically this is all going to take even longer, as much as a generation or more. Or to put it another way, you might as well put any hopes for Med4All on hold for the foreseeable future.


The problem with gradualism is that it's a bit like Zeno's paradox: to get from A to B we need first to get halfway to B and then halfway of that and then halfway of the halfway of the halfway ad infinitum. In the end we actually can never get - or rather can never conceive how we get - from A to B. Burgis believes we first need a mass workers' party - but how do we get that? Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that such a formation could come out of mass campaigns around issues like Med4All? And couldn't a floor vote on the House help galvanize such a campaign? Certainly, Dore understands this straightforward truth, as do a lot of workers and youthful socialists, which is why Dore is getting such traction on this issue.


There is also something dishonest about Burgis’s argument. If it is true that Med4All isn't possible until we have a mass workers' party and that this isn't going to happen in this election cycle or the next – so at least for 4 more years and probably longer than that – then isn't it the obligation of a socialist politician like AOC to be up-front about that with her supporters? But that isn't the messaging coming from her. As noted earlier, in the clips Dore keeps playing from AOC’s first campaign, she attacks the position that we have to “wait forever” for Med4All, insisting instead that we can do this now and that what it takes is “political courage”. She’s never retracted that, she's never put out a clip saying that 'You all have to stop being voluntarist and be patient until I get a committee assignment in 2 or 3 or 4 election cycles and maybe then I can nudge this thing along.' I have a feeling that wouldn't go over too well in her Bronx congressional district, which has one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the country. Nor would it go over well with her millions of young twitter followers who were inspired by her because they finally felt that they had someone in Congress who was going to make life seriously unpleasant for Pelosi, Biden and the establishment. This means that AOC is deluding her supporters: she wants cred for having “political courage” but not the pain of acting courageously. Burgis’s arguments are really intended to make that embarrassing contradiction disappear.


A final point: an article revisiting this issue appeared on Jacobin a few days ago. This one, by Corey Brooks, a history prof, suggests that there is ongoing unease in the Jacobin milieu about AOC’s position on #forcethevote. Brooks goes back to the abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s who, like today’s progressives, only had a small contingent of supporters in the House but tried to leverage that to stop any slaveholder from being elected House speaker. They had no qualms about using whatever leverage they had against the dominant parties of their day (Democrats and Whigs) so as to gain attention for their cause, and their efforts had a significant impact on Northern public opinion in fostering opposition to slavery. A noteworthy episode was the House Speakership election of 1849 that became a marathon of 63 ballots because of abolitionist tactics. In the end a Georgia slaveholder won the position but in a larger sense it was the abolitionists who gained the most. They “didn’t necessarily gain tangible policy outputs from this gambit. But they did create a spectacle that put [their cause] at the center of national political debate, along with [their] criticisms aimed at both parties for their temporizing on the slavery issue.”


This has obvious relevance for the current #forcethevote controversy and Brooks makes that connection explicit: “Left commentators are correct when they argue that speakership elections constitute a rare opportunity for balance of power politics in a closely divided House. However doomed to fail in the short term, the spectacle such events create can have real consequences for long-term political and policy discourse.” So AOC and her apologists like Sirota and Burgis are exactly wrong: the “spectacle” of putting Pelosi’s feet to the fire to force a vote on Med4All is indeed “a rare opportunity” to shift public opinion, as the 1849 “spectacle” had done on slavery.


Brooks writes with an academic’s caution. He wonders “how to balance the very real value of spectacle for the cause of radical change” especially “in the midst of a pandemic” “against whatever potential seat at the table might be sacrificed by being obtrusive.” Maybe, as AOC has implied, she’s getting some concessions “behind closed doors” or maybe “she and her allies have become too sensitive to pressure from party institutions,” (a delicate way of saying they’ve been co-opted, a point Jimmy Dore also makes, though far more caustically). Maybe they think “this is not the moment to play hardball for the sake of spectacle,” but then Brooks asks a pointed question: “If that is in fact the case, it does raise the question of when and where they could find a better opportunity than a majority-rule speaker election in a closely divided congress.” The answer to this question is painfully obvious. The upshot of Brooks’s article is clear: the abolitionists of the antebellum era put today’s so-called ‘democratic socialists’ like AOC to shame.