To Vote Without Vision
by Adam Staley Groves
I actively supported Obama in 2008. I voted for him and I still feel it was the right thing to do. But I did not vote for Obama in 2012, or for Clinton in 2016. Why did I not vote? I rejected the normalisation of voting for the lesser of two evils. By the middle of Obama’s first term, my fool’s hope turned to dread. The banks got a massive bailout and student debt slaves did not (this among other things). Obama took the party to the so-called centre, relying on Republican buy-in on several important legislative initiatives. I grew tired of progressive pandering by the Democratic Party.
This is not an argument about the Democratic Party taking the “centre”. Whatever exists of the centre today is mere romantic folly and lack of leadership. America has no vision beyond recycled ghosts of the previous century.
Beyond Bernie Sanders, there was hardly a platform articulated during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Clinging to centrism in the 2016 election cycle, the Democratic Party has failed to do what the country, not just the party, needs. There have been defections from within the Republican Party, moments of conscience. Despite these defections (Justin Amash, Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney etc.), and where said defectors stand ideologically, we hardly witness concessions of conscience from within the Democratic establishment. The other issue is the way Americans are governed by technologies. Civic life is increasingly one of a technological sense or sensibility. Thus, to have a view is increasingly a technological problem particular to America’s novel populism. It concerns mental desiccation. It is a spiritual crisis in the most secular way.
Has the Democratic Party learned after the outcome of 2016 and the ideological shortcomings of the Obama years? There are not many willing to chime in. Recently, former Clinton-era economist Brad DeLong conceded that a leftward movement was apropos. What did he say? Essentially that Rubin Democrats (Robert Rubin acolytes) were wrong, neoliberalists are not the ones who should take the lead in terms of policy because they failed. This failure occurred because Rubinism requires Republican partners with “good faith”. DeLong’s example was the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Thus, prior to passing the ACA, there was a concession by the Democrats despite winning an electoral mandate in 2008. Chosen was the “public option” viz. Romney Care versus Medicare for All, thus the ACA ended up with the public option, a republican plan.
Was it possible to obtain Medicare for All in the first term of Obama’s Administration? And supposing the Republican Party is imploding with its adherence to Trumpism and he loses, will it be possible after the 2020 election? For the former, I believe so. For the latter, I want to believe that is the case.
In wanting to believe, I lack an invisible referent, an object which a vision of thought seeks to manifest in reality. Belief is folly if there is no shred of evidence, no concrete debris of some entirely abstract thing one risked to find, subtle or not. One cannot thank a lack of results or the deadness of reality for their resolve. One can come to resent resolution all the more. Developing reason and knowledge along the way does not prepare us to be responsible for a reality of dispossession and estrangement. The trauma has to stay on the surface. Some turn to their art, others to social media. One has to consider what could be and not what should have been.
Was my refusal to vote nothing more than acquiescence to “voter suppression”? For I objected by conscience not to vote. Was more than vanity at stake? Shall we lump this into the entitlement category? Upon the pitiful undermining of Sanders’s campaign in 2016, I found myself in a place I had frequented in years past. Perhaps the convention was strategically brilliant to keep policy off the table? Or they simply lack vision. With Joe Biden, it is known he is not an ideas grade politician. He lacks a grand vision. Perhaps what is needed is merely an executive facilitator? For Trump has ideas and, in his world, that’s all that matters. And for many voters, that’s acceptable.
Concessions to Trumpism have already been made. Firstly, Biden is a good guy and his newly crafted image is of a tough, loving, if not benevolent harbinger of normalcy. Let’s get this virus under control, then we get to policy. But this normalcy does not exist in the way it had. Normalcy is a petite romanticism the nation cannot afford. For one, the US position in the global system has atrophied and the systemic problems in the US have exacerbated in tandem. This promises to complicate how the US asserts itself globally in the years to come.
What motivated Republican Trumpists to destroy consensus legislation such as the ACA? And how did Obama’s governance and administration fail to pre-empt it? To think this, one has to get over any political victimisation. Biden’s speech was forceful yet the collective experience of any internal shuttering by convicted diction is not enough to cull the rot it may have momentarily unearthed.
Anyone who wants to claim Obama was ideologically radical is misinformed. Yet that narrative metastasised despite the so-called “go high” trope. Perhaps it was Obama’s “purple” America which was closer to his heart than progressivism. Simply put, going left in Obama’s first term was the correct option. For it seems yesterday’s left is today’s centre yet supressed ideal. Obama lacks greatness not because of his metaphysical idealism alone. Despite what Trump has done, his ascension is the fault of the Democrats. The Obama Administration failed because it took grassroots progressives and what they fought for, for granted. When relying on the flanks of the party, or the marginalised left, to win office, the Obama Administration subsequently abandoned them for “good faith Republicans”. By doing so, they lacked a proper ideological instrument in the strategic sense.
Obama did not have to be a sincere progressive, but if one is willing to pander to the left to get elected, shouldn’t this also be instrumentally useful in maximising leverage when negotiating the ACA? Didn’t the right always oppose health care reform? Didn’t the right show Obama their disdain and hatred for minorities and working class people when he organised communities? And did they not immediately show Obama the same when he became the nominee and, as they did, call for a military coup when he won the presidency? Did not Moscow Mitch declare congress’ duty was to make him a one term president? Sarah Palin, anybody?
The atrophy of the Democratic Party was not only self-made, it cost the nation dearly. Self-made, you ask? Have we forgotten that Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign spat out that photo of Obama in Kenya, as she feared losing her bid? What difference is there between Trump and Clinton on this matter? Not much. There was so little left of the left, at that time, it hardly mattered. Obama suffered from Clintonian blindness yet needed the progressive left to secure a centrist statesmanship for the future. Not unlike the wholly crude, yet effective, usurpation by Trump of his own radical flank and party establishment.
Obama’s accomplishments have been attacked, retracted and destroyed. But let’s not go victim here. If he was a good manager of the state who advanced America in a direction of incremental gains and centre right policy, it was a moderately conservative agenda which Republicans abandoned anyway. Getting Iran to stop its nuclear program seems not about demilitarisation in general. The Paris Climate Change agreement was not about planetary love. The Trans Pacific Partnership was not about mutual wins and peace through prosperous trade. It was about American power within a global economic order which is failing. We must look intensively at Kamala Harris who now stands in front of an abyss. For one, neoliberalism is no longer a horror vacui. And Biden is 77 years old. What shall come of AOC and Sanders? Have we truly passed the Obama-Clinton era, those metaphysical rainbows of electric prose?
A New Binary for Political Identity
If the 20th century could be reduced to a choice between capitalism and socialism, we know American socialism is far less a reality than capitalist neoliberalism. If the Democratic Party years back abandoned socialist influence, the Republican Party has gone equally far from conservatism. For the middle class and its aspirants, one wonders if capitalism is dead.
America’s left died with Bill Clinton. The arguments put forth about socialism’s takeover in the contemporary are befuddling. Perhaps the result of a collective, national psychotherapy session. Cast about social media is the willingness to believe in last century’s phantoms. Apparitions cloud our view. Two decades into the 21st century, we are seeing the death of neoliberalism which was at the core of both parties for far too long. Whatever Trump has broken, it was, in many ways, something inevitable.
We live in a world underwritten by communicative technologies to the extent we no longer know a world without them. These technologies are increasingly adept at assuming the imagination and subverting civility. The calculative machinery of antiquated political institutions deploy these novel technologies and in turn destroy themselves. For Trump, the power of media technologies mean dismantling the American system whenever this is required for power. No ethics of the imagination for the right wing. For Obama, selling out progressives was, in my view, more about power than prosperity. Denouncing the free press, encouraging violence against his enemies and so on, Trump is obviously the worst president in history (Obama is miles from that). Made clear in terms of election security and Russian interference, but equally Trump’s persistent lying and manipulation of his own base, communicative technologies increase chaos. Without a vision, Americans are on a journey to hit bottom.
Trumpism is un-American by the letter, but not necessarily in spirit. And this may well have to be rethought. Trumps supporters are a reality, they are not going away. Social media and disinformation is central to Trumpism’s assured endurance even if he loses the election. Why? Because it means the letter of this spirit continues to be made, to manifest. This is his legacy. And not just for Trump. Politics has been reduced to a phone app. This was all too clear with mainstream media freak-outs over the app fail during the 2019 Iowa caucuses. Technologicalisation of politics may prove to be more than a phase of Americans realising there is a rest of the world. The law Trumpism adheres to is de facto, a state which exacerbates chaos, a chaos according to the still living memory and laws of an increasingly irrelevant electromechanical age. This chaos is of an order of an entirely different sort. Without an ideological vision, the Biden-Harris ticket will struggle to exceed the reality in which it has found itself.
The Device That Cuts
Life is beset by the dint of isolation. The current pandemic and the authoritarian measures necessary to stop it calls for technological solutions which offer a window out of domestic confinement, out of a slow boil. Our innate, inhuman sufficiency, the ability to imagine, to have a view or to realise “the human” may well be past us. On the other hand, autonomy and freedom are bound to the inhuman capacity of dreaming, creativity and vision. In other words, if our bodies are less important, more impotent, docile and domesticated, shall we have less of a view and creativity? Will technologies continue towards the harnessing of the mind, fighting its battles at the antennae of our dendrites?
Mind is its primary sufficiency for our techno-habitus. I question if it promises a new way of existence in a post-capitalist world. Does it operate for its own existence and merely that? Is it, in another way, our tendency for inexistence? Or is it an arrival at the beachhead of the human made world, of a punishing indifference? Closer yet to nature? What is more inhumane, Covid-19 or social media?
Along with the pandemic, there is an increasing awareness of spiritual crises, divorces, suicides, racism, poverty, ecocide and addiction. The question of inexistence is an expression of our innate link to an inhumanity, one which informs, but not always advances, living. We shall need to know our own inhumanity, and objectively so. For it is inhumanity which nurtures the balance owned within humanity itself: life and death.
What ideological binary, if any, might we have? The material basis of any viewing force is the law cum technologies wielded everyday. This law is no longer written exclusively by legislators, and yet because persons write laws and presidents sign them into existence, they are already ensnared and captured by the devices of subjectification. Facebook and Twitter have only grown in terms of how media forms govern. These apparatuses of capture, owing here to the influence of Giorgio Agamben, have made devices indispensable to survival. They have claimed a power over our innate viewing force, to imagine as humans the inhuman, which is in part the truth of the imagination and the nucleic fact of our evolution. It is also the binary of human life. The ability to have a view is not the same thing as viewpoints, yet both are part of our condition.
I question if view-having is less likely today. Or am I simply jaded if I think politics is a secondary volition, a frustration, not an after-thought, but a thought-after the technological fact. The factical truth of feeling dethroned, the coup of self-consciousness and conscience. To me, this secondary volition is driven by a severance of natural force and feeling. The apparatus and device master a binding-together for the user. Primary volition, or simply “nature”, is increasingly found not in the electromechanical traditions which shaped politics of the past. That is the source of petite romanticism found in the indices of information. For it is the device which cuts the human from the inhuman. It also introduces them to one another. It is a combinatory power we have never experienced in such a way.
I am forced to vote. All I have left is a basic understanding that the Democrats are headed towards life and the Republicans are headed towards death. But even of this I am not so sure. Does my voting indicate I am no longer a victim? I am not sure what it means. What I do think I know, think I know, is by death there is promised neither human nor inhuman. To die is human, to live tugs up the inhuman possibility from the terrestrial floor. Whatever mediates this metaphysics has entered the level of the natural. This death we face is a consequence of the 20th century, which is now concluding in American political life and may well continue to occur in countries across the globe. It is, to be clear, what Sarah Palin meant by death panels.
About the Author:
Adam Staley Groves is an academic teacher. His research centres on what he calls the “ethics of the imagination” derived from his doctoral studies on the French philosopher Jean Wahl and American poet, Wallace Stevens. The author of two volumes of poetry Adam has also published critical essays on art. Among his varied interest he paints, plays music, and resides in Singapore.