John Edwards is My Frenemy

I first registered to vote when I stumbled into a small, untidy Democratic Party office on Lancaster Avenue in suburban Southeastern Pennsylvania. As it happens, the office was manned by a former YDS member named Adam Berg. I never really got to know Berg, but I will remember him as a true master of the guilt-trip school of mobilization. He knew that emails were easily ignored but his imploring phone calls would convince me, and many other students, to devote our weekends to phone banking, canvassing etc.

As one point Berg told me that he was leaning towards Edwards for the upcoming ’04 primaries. This seemed crazy. As far as I was concerned, there were two respectable choices for progressives, either Dennis Kucinich, who seemed less flaky then (or have I changed?), or the more respectable Howard Dean. Edwards’ populism seemed limited to folksy stories about his blue-collar dad and his complicity in the invasion of Iraq made him entirely unacceptable.

Since then, Edwards has tacked to the left and has, in my view, become much more interesting. Whether his leftward drift is the result of calculation or conviction is largely irrelevant to me. Since 2004 I have developed a much more skeptical view of electoral politics and politicians – at this point I don’t really care what Democratic politicians personally feel or think. What does matter to me is the extent to which we can coerce or cajole politicians into doing the right thing, whatever their own inclinations and interests might be. More broadly, I think about the way campaigns and elections change the political discursive environment (e.g., in the way the Howard Dean campaign emboldened opposition to the Iraq war.)

These days I’m leaning towards Edwards because I want other Democrats to see that they will be rewarded with votes and support if they stake out more venturesome progressive positions. If Hillary Clinton wins the primary, it will be clear that she owes her nomination to a ’90s-era network of Democratic establishment types and a sophisticated public relations machine. If Obama gets the nomination he will owe it all to his ideologically confused fan club. Seriously, the Barack Obama camp is so broad it includes everybody, your mom, Chicago New Left radicals, Andrew Sullivan and possibly even David Brooks.

If, on the other hand, John Edwards gets picked (or becomes President), he will owe his victory to progressive bloggers and economic justice voters. In short, it will be interpreted as a victory for the left and a popular mandate for health care reform, anti-poverty programs and a multilateral foreign policy. I have no illusions that Edwards will necessarily deliver on his promises but he will certainly make millions of people angry if he does not. The responsibility for realizing the Edwards platform ultimately rests on those disgruntled masses.

In a way, I expect and even welcome the capitulation of the Democratic Party to the nefarious forces of capital. Whenever elected officials betray the electorate (e.g., the Democratic 110th Congress) we are presented with a useful and I think radicalizing “teaching moment” on the limitations of our bought-and-paid-for bourgeois democracy. When angry liberals are forced to confront the failures and contradictions of our political system, they might start turning a bit pink in their politics – pink or even red at the edges.

This is in total contrast to the useless project of running ideologically pure, third-party candidates. These doomed campaigns actually reinforce the political system without exposing any of its internal deficiencies. When a Green Party candidate wins 5% of the vote, the message is clear: democracy has spoken, the Greens lost, their platform is unpopular. End of story.

The left can’t afford to keep investing so much manpower, womanpower and transgenderpower into these demoralizing failures. Nor can we abandon electoral politics entirely and cede that vast terrain, Brest-Litovsk style, to the Central Powers. Instead we should collaborate in a spirit of hostile support with viable progressive reform candidates [Democrats], without illusions about the limitations of the system, and with the aim of movement building always in mind.

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