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NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018


I had some further thoughts triggered by the Berman/Robin controversy [and thanks to Dean for his/her kind remarks].  They concern the subject, now much under discussion in the media, of the relationship of those identifying themselves as Democratic Socialists or Social Democrats to the main body of Democratic Party elected officials and operatives.  It strikes me that it is less than helpful to draw elaborate comparisons with European struggles between the two wars.  My reason is as follows.

Multi-party parliamentary politics always poses for the members of one of the parties, especially one of the smaller parties, a problematic choice: whether to work with, perhaps even to join, one of the larger parties, thereby gaining some measure of political power, but at the price of compromising severely with one’s principles and programs; or alternatively to remain separate and thus able to preserve the authenticity of one's principles and programs, but at the price of giving up even such power as participation in a coalition might afford.

I do not see this choice as a matter of existential purity, as it would be perhaps for a religious splinter sect convinced that precisely its interpretation of holy writ is the only pathway to salvation.  Rather, it is a choice forced on the party by the structure of parliamentary politics.

The American political system is not a parliamentary system, a fact that makes minor party political efforts unsuccessful save in the most unusual of circumstances.  The Greens, the Libertarians, and other minority parties are in general doomed to failure by the structure of the American political system.  The fight between the left of the Democratic Party and the establishment wing is taking place within the party.  Next January, if the Democrats have retaken the House, all the candidates who are elected on the Democratic ticket, whatever their political orientation, will choose a Speaker of the House and share around the committee chairmanships.  The fights will go on, just as they have in the Republican Party, and as the successes of the so-called Freedom Caucus demonstrate, unified minorities can have considerable success.  But the experiences of European Socialist, Communist, Social Democratic and other left parties do not, I believe, offer useful lessons or guides to American left activists.


MS said...

The following may be off message, but since I only discovered this today, I thought it was important to post it. Below is a link to a speech that Hillary Clinton gave on December 17, 2017, at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City. I urge all readers of this blog who supported Bernie Sanders (as I did), but who then refused, out of a sense of doctrinal purity, to vote for Hillary Clinton (I did not allow doctrinal orthodoxy to prevent me from voting for the Democratic candidate), would you not today rather that you were hearing Hillary Clinton (her policy/personlaity short-comings notwithstanding) addressing the nation from the White House, expressing the kinds of thoughts she does in this speech, rather than the hate-mongering by the demagogue who now occupies that office?

s. wallerstein said...

How about France, which has a presidential system similar in some respects to the U.S.?

In the last election, la France Insoumise, a leftwing movement formed out of several smaller parties, with Jean Luc Melenchón as their candidate, came in 4th with a respectable 20% of the popular vote, while the Socialists, comparable to our mainstream Democrats, got only 6% of the popular vote. That is, the left left was able to displace the mainstream neoliberal left as a political force. If it can happen in France, I don't see why it can't happen in the U.S. if Democratic Socialist play their cards right. It may be long process, but it can happen. Of course it has never happened before, but new things happen every day, don't they?

MS said...

(MS, Part One)

Following up on my previous comment regarding doctrinal purity and voting (which is apropos of Prof. Wolff’s observation that under the American voting system, minority parties cannot exert meaningful political power), out of curiosity I checked on the voting totals in the four states that essentially gave Trump the election victory in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (The following analysis may duplicate analyses that have previously appeared in the media, but I have not seen them. My apologies if this is already old hat.)

Trump won the election with 306 electoral votes, versus Clinton’s 232; 270 votes were required for victory. So, if Trump had won 38 less electoral votes, and Clinton had won those 38 electoral votes, today we would have Hillary Clinton as President, not Trump. The electoral college votes of each of the states in question were as follows: Wis.: 10; MI, 16; Ohio, 18; PA, 20. If Clinton had won Ohio and PA, she would have won the election; alternatively, if she had won Wis., MI and Ohio, or Wis., MI and PA, she would have won.

A breakdown of the voting in the four states in question (based on data reported on Wikipedia) are as follows:


Wis. Democratic Primary:

Clinton: 433,739
Sanders: 570,192

Wis. Presidential vote:

Trump: 1,405,284
Clinton: 1,382,536
Difference: 22,748

Adding one vote to the difference, had Clinton received 22,749 additional votes, or 3.9% of the voters who voted for Sanders in the primary, she would have won Wisconsin’s electoral votes.


MI Democratic Primary:

Clinton: 581,775
Sanders: 598,943

MI Presidential vote:

Trump: 2,279,543
Clinton: 2,268,839
Difference: 10,704 = 1.8% of votes for Sanders in the primary.


PA Democratic Primary

Clinton: 935,107
Sanders: 731,881

PA Presidential vote

Trump: 2,970,733
Clinton: 2,926,441
Difference: 44,292 = 6.1% of votes for Sanders in the primary.


Ohio Democratic Primary:

Clinton: 696,681
Sanders: 535,395

Ohio Presidential vote:

Trump: 2,841,005
Clinton: 2,394,164
Difference: 446,941 = 83.5% of votes for Sanders in the primary.

Assuming that all of the people who voted for Clinton in the respective states in the primary also voted for her in the Presidential election (I believe this is a fairly safe assumption; obviously more voted people for her in the general election than voted for her in the primary, but if a person was motivated enough to vote in the primary, they probably voted in the general election as well), then it was the general failure of Sanders voters to deviate from their doctrinal purity which cost Clinton the electoral votes in those states; the shift of a mere 1.8% of the Sanders voters in Michigan, 3.9% in Wisconsin, and 6.1% in Pennsylvania would have elected Clinton over Trump.

MS said...

(MS, Part Two)

So, was this adherence to doctrinal purity worth it? Were the discrepancies in policy and personality between Clinton and Sanders worth this demonstration of doctrinal loyalty? It has given us the racist ban on immigration; the traumatic separation of refugee children from their parents; the rabid attacks on our free press; the scuttling of the EPA; the likely appointment of an ultra conservative jurist to the Supreme Court, assuring a conservative majority for a likely 30 some years to come; etc., etc.

And remember the 2000 election? Al Gore lost the state of Florida to George W. Bush by a mere 537 votes, thereby losing the election. Ralph Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida. Had a mere .55% of the people who voted for Nader voted for Gore instead, Gore, not Bush, would have been President. Now, I like Ralph Nader. He is an eminently honorable person, a heroic advocate for consumer rights, an individual of high integrity. But anyone who voted for him in 2000 knew in his/her heart of hearts that he did not have the slightest chance of being elected President. Were the policy/personality differences between Gore and Nader so significant that they justified experimenting with the future of this country, and as it turned out, the future of the world, by voting for Nader? I believe that had Gore been elected, there is a good chance that 9/11 would not have occurred. Gore, unlike Bush, would not have been asleep at the wheel removing brush from his ranch; he would have been conscientious in reviewing the intelligence reports that indicated something suspicious was going on with Al-Qaeda. And even if 9/11 had occurred, although Gore probably would have supported an invasion of Afghanistan, he would not have subscribed to an invasion of Iraq on the pretext that Hussein had been involved in 9/11 and was concealing weapons of mass destruction. We would be much further along in reducing the use of fossil fuels and combating global warming. And John Roberts and Samuel Alito would not be sitting on the Supreme Court. Was this fealty to doctrinal purity, the refusal to compromise one’s principles, worth the risk?

Pundits are saying that regardless what Robert Mueller is able to dredge up implicating Trump in a scheme of collusion with Russia, he is not likely to be impeached. Some pundits are also predicting that if he is not impeached, and runs again, there is a good chance he will be re-elected. There is, of course, no way of predicting who will be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. Whoever he/she is, it is guaranteed that he/she will not satisfy all of the doctrinal desires of political progressives. Will political progressives once again, out of a sense of devotion to doctrinal purity, bite off their noses to spite their faces, thereby guaranteeing four more years of a Trump presidency, with the disastrous consequences for this country and for the world? Can political progressives avoid the moral implications of that devotion simply by claiming that they cannot support the lesser of two evils, because, according to them, the lesser evil is still evil (a specious argument, because the lesser evil candidate is generally not evil, just not as progressive as some would want)? Will we progressives learn from our past mistakes in judgment?

Jerry Fresia said...

I agree completely. I find it odd that some very astute leftists just don't seem to get that the 2 party system is a structure which in turn must be challenged before third parties are viable.

But there are some hopeful signs. First, apart from the barriers to getting on the ballot in various states and barriers to becoming part of the televised debates, political scientists, I believe, have identified three structure barriers which compel voters and/or leaders of third parties, in the end, to swing their support to one of the two major parties: they are the Electoral College, plurality elections, and single member districts.

With regard to the Electoral College, which would require a Constitutional Amendment to change (not likely), 11 states with 165 electoral votes, have already passed legislation which would REQUIRE electors in their respective states to cast their votes for the person who one the popular vote. That's promising. We would need 270 to effectively work-around the Electoral College.

With regard to plurality elections, some states are experimenting with non-plurality elections, such as with Maine's ranked-choice voting.

With regard to Congressional single-member districts: I don't think it would violate the US Constitution for a state legislature to require that in Massachusetts', for example, its 9 Congresspeople be elected at large and proportionally, thus encouraging a multi-party system in that state.

In other words, I don't think we are stuck with having to vote for the lesser of two evils. But the very structure of the two party system needs to be politicized, which I would think, would be the first priority of the Greens and other minor parties. Jill Stein, at least, is talking about various ways of voting so I guess that is a step forward.

RobinMcDugald said...

It seems to me that the notion of "doctrinal purity" possibly overly simplifies the reasons why people vote--or non-vote--as they do. Like every other human action, voting is surely determined by a complex of conscious and unconscious motives. And even if we attend only to the conscious ones, it's surely a more complex matter than "rational choice" would make it seem. (I put the scare quotes around "rational choice," by the way, because all too often rationality seems to reduce to "thinks, evaluates, acts as I would do.")

PS. Thanks for the response to my query.