Robert Jensen and Pat Youngblood : Taking Politics Seriously

Vote. But don’t stop there!

Looking beyond the election and beyond elections
by Robert Jensen and Pat Youngblood

We have nothing against voting. We plan to vote in the upcoming election. Some of our best friends are voters.

But we also believe that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the most important political moment in our lives comes in the voting booth. Instead, people should take politics seriously, which means asking considerably more of ourselves than the typical fixation with electoral politics.

First, we won’t be coy about this election. Each of us voted for Obama in the Texas primary and will vote for him in November. We are leftists who are consistently disgusted by the center-right political positions of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and we have no illusions that Obama is secretly more progressive than his statements in public and choice of advisers indicate. But there is slightly more than a dime’s worth of policy differences between Obama and McCain, and those differences are important in this election. The reckless quality of the McCain campaign and its policy proposals are scary, as is the cult of ignorance that has grown up around Palin.

Just as important, the people of this white-supremacist nation have a chance to vote for an African-American candidate. Four decades after the end of formal apartheid in the United States, in the context of ongoing overt and covert racism that is normalized in many sectors of society, there’s a possibility that a black person might be elected president. Even though Obama doesn’t claim the radical roots of the anti-apartheid struggles of recent U.S. history, the symbolic value of this election is not a trivial consideration. This isn’t tokenism, but a sign of real progress, albeit limited.

But even though we make that argument, we will vote knowing that the outcome of the election is not all that important, for a simple reason: The multiple crises facing this country, and the world, cannot be adequately addressed within the conventional political, economic, or social systems. This is reflected in the fact that neither candidate is even acknowledging the crises. The conventional political wisdom — Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative — is deeply rooted in the denial of the severity of these crises and hostility to acknowledging the need for radical change. Such a politics of delusion won’t generate solutions but instead will lead us to the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, the brick wall — pick your preferred metaphor, but when the chickens of denial come home to roost, it’s never pretty.

These crises are not difficult to identify; the evidence is all around us.

Economics: We aren’t facing a temporary downturn caused by this particular burst bubble but instead are moving into a new phase in the permanent decline of a system that has never met the human needs of most people and never will. It is long past the time to recognize the urgent need to start imagining and building an economics based on production and distribution for real human needs, rejecting the corrosive greed that underlies not only the obscene profits hoarded by the few but also the orgiastic consumption pursued by the many. We can’t know whether McCain or Obama recognizes these things, but it’s clear that both candidates — along with their parties and the interests they represent — are not interested in facing these realities.

Empire: The way in which First-World nations have pursued global empires over the past 500 years to grab for themselves a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth has never been morally justifiable. The recent phase of U.S. domination in that project is particularly offensive, given U.S. political leaders’ cynical rhetoric about democracy. But whatever one’s evaluation of the ideology behind the U.S. attempt to run the world through violence and coercion, the project is falling apart. The invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not just moral failures but pragmatic disasters. While McCain and Obama have slightly different strategies for dealing with these disasters, neither is willing to face the depravity of the imperial endeavor and neither argues for abandoning the imperial project.

Ecology: It’s no longer helpful to speak about “environmental issues,” as if we face discrete problems that have clear solutions. Without major changes to the way humans live, we face the collapse of the ecosystem’s ability to sustain human life as we know it. Every basic indicator of the health of the ecosystem is cause for concern — inadequate and dwindling supplies of clean water, chemical contamination in every part of the life cycle, continuing topsoil loss, toxic waste build-up, species loss and reduced biodiversity, and climate change. Unless one adopts an irrational technological fundamentalism — the faith-based assumption that new gadgets will magically rescue us — this means we have to downsize and scale back our lives dramatically, learning to live with less. Yet conventional politicians continue to promise to deliver a lifestyle that constitutes a form of collective planetary suicide.

So, we live in a predatory corporate capitalist economy in a world structured by the profound injustice produced by an imperial system that is steadily drawing down the ecological capital of the planet. The domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of this world is rooted in the ideologies of male domination and white domination. This belief in the inevitability of hierarchy grows out of thousands of years of patriarchy, reinforced by hundreds of years of white supremacy. Any meaningful progressive politics also must address not just the worst behaviors that come out of these systems — the overt sexism and racism that continue to plague society — but also the underlying worldview that normalizes inequality. Yes, Obama is black, and McCain selected a female running mate, but neither candidate ever speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy.

There are two common responses to the analysis offered here. The first is to condemn it as crazy, which is the response of the majority of Americans. The second, from people who don’t find such claims crazy and share the basic analysis, is that we have to be realistic and tone down our arguments, precisely because most Americans won’t take seriously anyone who speaks so radically.

But if being realistic has something to do with facing reality, then arguments for radical change are the most realistic. When problems are the predictable consequence of existing systems and no solutions are plausible within them, then arguing for continued capitulation to those systems isn’t realistic. It’s literally insane.

We live in a country that is, in fact, growing increasingly insane. Fashioning a strategy for political organizing in such a country, and shaping rhetoric to advance that organizing, is indeed difficult. But it must start with a realistic description of the problems we face, a realistic evaluation of the nature of the systems that gave rise to those problems, and a realistic assessment of the degree of change necessary to imagine solutions.

Taking politics seriously in the United States today means recognizing the limits of electoral politics. Voting matters, but it’s not the most important act in our political lives. Traditional grassroots political organizing to advance progressive policies on issues is more important. And even more crucial today is the long-term project of preparing for the dramatically different world that is on the horizon — a world in which an already unconscionable inequality will have expanded; a world with less energy to deal with the ecological collapse; a world in which existing institutions likely will prove useless in helping us restructure our lives; a world in which we will need to reclaim and develop basic skills for sustaining ourselves and our communities.

These challenges are daunting but also exciting, presenting us with tasks for which the energy and creativity of every one of us will be needed. Can we find a way to talk about that excitement which could encourage others to explore these ideas? Can we develop projects to put those ideas into action, even if only on a small scale? When we have tried to articulate this worldview in plain language in recent political lectures and discussions, we have found that a growing number of people not only will listen but are hungry for such honesty.

We don’t pretend that number is large right now — certainly not a majority, and not anywhere near the number needed for a mass movement — but one wouldn’t expect that in this affluent society in which many people are still insulated from the worst consequences of these systems. But that’s changing. As more and more people, from many sectors of society, face these realities, they join the search for a community in which to confront this together. Our political work should focus on connecting with people on common ground, articulating a realistically radical analysis, and working from there to construct a just and sustainable society.

So, we will vote on Nov. 4, without hesitation. But more importantly, on Nov. 5 we will be realistic and continue talking about the radical change necessary to build a different world.

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Pat Youngblood, a social studies teacher at McCallum High School in Austin, are members of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, Jensen can be reached at and Youngblood can be reached at A version of this article appeared in the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, CA.

Source / CommonDreams / Published Oct. 23, 2008

Thanks to Roger Baker / The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Robert Jensen and Pat Youngblood : Taking Politics Seriously

  1. Mike Hanks says:

    I can only say … amen bro. Though the difficulties we face are not new.

    Here’s what Joseph Pulitzer said in December, 1878, in the St. Louis Dispatch:

    “Money is the great power today. Men sell their souls for it. Women sell their bodies for it. Others worship it. The money power has grown so great that the issue of all issues is whether the corporation shall rule this country or the country shall again rule the corporations.”

    It might as well be added that the issue of our time is whether the Government will rule the people or the people will rule the Government.

  2. I know some of you are probably getting tired of reading my argument on this. I’m getting a bit tired of writing it. It seems to me that I shouldn’t need to, but things like this article constantly remind me that I do.

    Despite my great respect for Professor Jensen, I am very disappointed to discover that despite his calls for “radical change” he still intends not only to vote for Obama, but has chosen to indirectly advocate that others do the same by making his voting choice public. In general, I have nothing against publicizing one’s political positions, about voting or anything else, but when a professed “leftist” or “radical” indicates his or her intentions to support one of the imperialist, capitalist parties or candidates, in complete disregard of simple logic, I have to question it.

    Certainly, as Jensen and Youngblood say in this piece, grassroots activism and social change is at least as important as voting, but that is no reason to minimize voting to the point that you should throw your vote away, and any person who claims any political knowledge, who lives in Texas, or any one of the other 30-40 “safe” states, and who votes for either candidate of the two branches of our duopoly has indeed thrown their vote away.

    John McCain will win Texas…and Arizona, Utah, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.

    Barack Obama will win California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Hawaii. This year it seems evident that he will easily carry some states that are traditionally “swing” states: Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin; and polls suggest that some “red” states are now toss-ups, such as Virginia and North Carolina.

    Yes, if you are concerned about the future of America, the world, the economy, the environment, etc., then you should be hoping that Obama wins. Further, if you live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada, New Mexico or a few others, then you should also vote for Obama to try to help him get your state’s Electoral College votes (hopefully, in this venue, there is no need for me to explain what that means); however, if you live in any of the “safe” states, whether red or blue, and you consider yourself a leftist, a progressive, or a radical, and have transcended any loyalty to the Democratic Party, whose ties to imperialism and capitalism are even older than the Republicans’, and who have had several opportunities to create meaningful change both here and globally, and have always failed to even try, then you should be voting for either Cynthia McKinney (Green Party US) or Brian Moore (Socialist Party USA). Some may argue that Ralph Nader should also be on this list, but I suggest that there is no logical reason to vote for Nader in this election. I would further argue that if you really want to attempt to use your vote to assist in the possibility of real change for the better, then McKinney is the only logical choice.

    This is not an argument that McKinney is the best candidate. In fact, given the current choices, I would grant that title to Nader, but a vote for him does absolutely nothing for the long-term prospects of progressive change. Brian Moore and Cynthia McKinney are both rather weak candidates, but they have no real chance of winning, which is exactly why it does not matter whether they are good candidates or not. What does matter is that they both represent leftist progressive parties, and that if either of them should receive 5% of the national popular vote, then their party will be eligible for federal matching funds in the 2012 election cycle. Even this is a long shot for either of them, but it is much more likely for McKinney than Moore.

    Let’s face it, socialism is still a bad word in this country. Sure, that is largely based on popular misconceptions about what socialism really is, or misunderstandings about what its effects would be, but it is still suffering from decades of bad press, and may never recover…unless it is rebranded, if I may use a capitalist term to talk about it.

    In effect, that is what the Green Party is. Certainly, because it does not promote itself as a socialist organization, and because it is basically a democratic organization, its economic platform positions are not really socialist, but social justice is one of their “four pillars.” Furthermore, Jensen and Youngblood talk about feminism vs. patriarchy and the global ecological crisis, and ecological wisdom is another “pillar” and feminism is one of their “ten key values.” Also, while the Democrats have nominated someone with partial African heritage, and the Republican nominee has chosen a woman as his running mate, the Green Party nominated a black woman who chose a Puerto Rican woman as her running mate.

    Getting back to the electoral issues, though, Moore has almost no chance of winning the 5% needed to gain matching funds for the Socialist Party, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that if the politically knowledgeable non-partisan progressives and leftists living in “safe” states would take notice of this line of reasoning and vote for McKinney, that she could garner the 5% need to add some money into the Green Party coffers four years from now.

    But what would that accomplish? Again, I will make the assumption that I am addressing the relatively savvy progressives, who know that money means access to lots of things in our elections, including travel, advertising and setting up new and effective fundraisers. And having more money makes it a bit more feasible that the Green candidate will have some impact on the race, which in turn, makes it a bit more likely that folks will be willing to make more donations to that candidate. Then, Greens can begin working on the next hurdle: 15% in national pre-debate polls. That is the bar for participation in the presidential debates established by the Commission on Presidential Debates, an exclusionary group set up by a former chair of the Republican Party and a former chair of the Democratic Party, who usurped the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters after Ross Perot knocked a chink in the armor of the two-party stranglehold over the American political system.

    Because they know that when the American people start to see the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and/or the Constitution Party as viable alternatives, that their lock on power is gone. True progressives, fiscal conservative/social liberals and social conservatives, respectively, will flock to those parties, leaving the two “major” parties mere shells of themselves.

    Another key point of this argument is that the 5% threshold to qualify for matching funds does not depend in any way on which states the votes come from, and is not in any way tied to or dependent on getting any Electoral College votes. So there is no weight to an argument that McKinney won’t get 5% in Texas so let’s vote for Bob Barr instead, unless you actually prefer the platform of the Libertarian Party and would prefer they get matching funds and grow their support base in 2012.

    To return briefly to the point regarding Nader: while I believe that among those candidates who have currently jumped through the various hoops to get their names on the ballots in enough states to theoretically stand a chance to win, Ralph Nader is the most qualified to hold the office, and would probably do the most for the progress of our country, our people, and for the world; nevertheless, he has three strikes against him. The first is the same that McKinney, Moore, Barr, and Baldwin face: viz, he has no chance of winning this year. If that were the only problem, it might still be meaningful to vote for him, but there are two other strikes.

    One is that at 74, he is even older than John McCain. He is slightly older than Reagan was at the start of his second term. He is unlikely to run again. Even if he did, at 78 he would have even less chance of winning any credible amount of support.

    Finally, he is an independent, and his campaign organization is unlikely to develop into any ongoing organization that will continue to challenge the status quo. That is, even if he could get 5% of the vote, it would not lead to anyone getting federal matching funds in 2012, or building enough support to break into the presidential debates. In short, it would go nowhere.

    Just like a vote for Obama or McCain does in a safe state.

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