Why participate in electoral politics?
This is a question I’m often asked by antiwar activists of all stripes, and especially by young people who wonder why they should bother with a process that oftentimes seems rigged from the get-go. With Election Day coming, and control of the US Senate up for grabs, it’s my chance to explain why antiwar activists – and especially libertarians – shouldn’t be just sitting on the sidelines.
My answer is contingent on the circumstances, however, as questions of strategy and tactics always are. If you live in a dictatorship where elections feature a single candidate, then electoral politics probably isn’t a good use of your time and energy. But even in the most unfavorable circumstances, the mere fact of running or being involved in an election campaign can have a powerful ripple effect.
It’s a definite understatement to say most Americans aren’t ideologues, and don’t think about politics a great deal: if and when they do consider the subject, it’s usually because Election Day is approaching. The great majority are too busy with the details of day-to-day living to consider the pressing issues of the day, but a window opens up around this time – a brief moment when political issues, including foreign policy issues, become a subject of discussion around the dinner table.
What this means is that the days and weeks preceding Election Day are the one time when a good many Americans are open to considering the price they pay for Empire. That’s why alleged "anti-imperialists" who take a "principled" stand against electoral activity in any way shape or form are full of it – or, more precisely, too full of themselves to think clearly about the issue. Their "stance" is more a fashion statement than a political position, more of a personal affirmation of who they are – I’m cool! I’m radical! I’m an anarchist, dude! – than the result of any real analysis of how to effect social change. Such people never understood the difference between libertarianism and narcissism.
Even in an era or a locality where the chances of victory are small to nearly nonexistent, electoral politics can have a powerful impact as an educational device – a way to reach great numbers of people who would be otherwise inaccessible. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard people say to me: "I was watching the Republican presidential debate and listening to Ron Paul go up against Rudy Giuliani and I suddenly realized ‘Hey, he’s right!’"
Which is kind of funny, since the Conventional Wisdom – as perceived by our all-knowing pundits – was that Giuliani won that debate, and Paul was finished, vanquished, over. It took a while for the reality to sink in, as events in Iraq progressed, that Paul was absolutely right: many people remembered that moment, and were won over in retrospect. So the fruits of a persistent educational effort aren’t always apparent at the beginning: the Ron Paul Effect, so to speak, was cumulative. So much of politics is sheer repetition, after all, and by the time Paul ran for the GOP nomination a second time the message had finally begun to sink in. It just took a while.
Dismantling the Empire is not a task for the impatient. If you aren’t in it for the long haul then you might as well not even bother. It took over a century for the American people to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the center of the international arena: decades of constant propaganda, much of it emanating from abroad – and from the Eastern financial centers in New York, New England, and Washington – before the natural "isolationism" (i.e. common sense) of the American people was overcome. It will take some time to undo all that – but it can be done.
And electoral politics is a key part of how it will and must be done. That’s because people make policy. The only way to change the policy is to replace the people making it, and the only way to do that in this country is through the electoral process.
Of course we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that if only we elect the "right" people, everything will automatically fall into place from the day after Election Day. That will only mark the beginning of our fight.
An entire stratum of the population lives off of the policy of imperialism: the military contractors, and all those who make their living either directly or indirectly due to the depth and breadth of America’s footprint in the world. And of course there is an entire class of politicians who have made appeasing the war god a lifelong career, and quite a profitable one at that.
These people have a vested economic and psychological interest in maintaining and expanding the Empire: as a class they are our implacable enemies. What’s more, they are well-organized, vocal, and very well-funded: since their economic survival and social status is dependent on our foreign policy of perpetual war, they are highly motivated to keep the war wagon rolling and you’d better believe they are pushing it as hard as they can. It’s really all about public choice theory: those who reap benefits from a given government program, usually a tiny minority, expend enormous amounts of energy protecting "their" piece of the pie.
On the other hand, most ordinary people – non-beneficiaries – are usually indifferent to and/or entirely ignorant of whatever government program is at issue, especially if it involves US intervention abroad. During an election, however, matters not directly impinging on their circumscribed world enter the popular consciousness – and that is our cue, our chance to make an impression and win hearts and minds.
We would be foolish not to take it.
If we look at the two "major" parties, at present, what we have is a perfectly complementary situation: that is, we have two pieces of a puzzle that can conceivably be put together if we look at them the right way.
On the one hand we have the Democrats, whose mass base is ostensibly "isolationist" and whose leadership is militantly "internationalist." On the other hand, we have the Republicans, whose mass base is mindlessly militaristic and yet which harbors a growing and increasingly visible insurgent leadership that is pulling away from the party’s traditional foreign policy stance.
The wild card in this mix is the single biggest category of American voter, the independents, who are thoroughly disenchanted with our foreign policy of ceaseless meddling and who are leaderless by definition. Our task and our challenge is to win control of one or the other of the two main parties in order to give the independents the leadership they need: then and only then will we lift this country out of the quagmire of Empire.
There are many obstacles to the success of an electoral strategy, and there’s no room here to go into the possible pitfalls, so I’ll just mention the two main ones: blind partisanship and even blinder sectarianism.
The idea that either one or the other of the two "major" parties is the party of peace – that is, the preordained vehicle for the anti-interventionist movement in this country – is just plain wrong. History tells a different story. During the Vietnam war era, the antiwar action was on the left, the McCarthy movement and the larger organized antiwar movement: during the run-up to World War II, the biggest antiwar organization in our history, the America First Committee, was founded and funded by conservative businessmen and largely Republican opponents of the New Deal.
In short, since anti-interventionism can arise on either side of the aisle, on the left or the right side of the political spectrum, it would be sectarian madness to demand complete ideological conformity from a prospective candidate. For example, the great libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard – who rightly recognized that opposition to imperialism is central to libertarianism, and not just a peripheral issue – supported the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson even though Stevenson was anything but a libertarian on economic issues. The whole plethora of cold war institutions and legislation, and most of all the militaristic and narrowly conformist mindset of the time, had to be swept aside before we could witness any progress in a libertarian direction.
Today, even as libertarians face an entirely different set of objective circumstances, the operative principles of political engagement remain the same: 1) Parties aren’t the point – peace is the point, and 2) politics isn’t religion. Candidate A wants to stay out of whatever holy crusade the war-hucksters are pushing at the moment, but you don’t agree with him or her on the transubstantiation issue – so then what?
It’s a question of moral and political priorities – because, when you think about it, there aren’t any issues more important than those involving war and peace. To the general antiwar activist, say a progressive or just an independent, it’s a purely moral (and relatively simple) question: after all, what we’re talking about here is opposition to mass murder.
For libertarians, the issue is a moral and a profoundly ideological one, for we recognize that what we are really addressing is mass murder by the State. Government in wartime reveals itself most starkly as an engine of pure unabashed coercion: here is the State at its most statist. This implies much more than actual physical murder, but also all the other unpleasant phenomena associated with barbarism, such as looting, rapine, enslavement, conscription, highway robbery ("taxation"), economic centralization, etc. In short, libertarian opposition to wars of aggression means taking on the systematic racketeering engaged in by the ruling elite, imperialism being the most evil (and most profitable) racket of them all.
Libertarians may think they’re on the threshold of a "libertarian moment," but the first wave of war hysteria can wash that sandcastle away in a single news cycle – and all too many ostensible libertarians with it. That’s why we established Antiwar.com all those years ago – because we somehow sensed that this moment would come and we knew we had to prepare.
Sometimes I wonder – as I see this or that prominent libertarian waffle on a key foreign policy point, like NATO, for example – whether those years of preparation have been enough. Oh well: we do only what we can, and hope it’s close enough to doing what we must.
Correction: Friday’s column, "The Chickenshit Lobby Is Mad As Hell," cited an article in the UK Guardian that quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying "When there are pressures on Israel to concede its security, the easiest thing to do is to concede. You get a round of applause, ceremonies on grassy knolls, and then come the missiles and the tunnels." A reader has informed me that this is a mistranslation of what Netanyahu actually said: the correct translation is "grassy lawns," not "grassy knolls" – which obviates my speculation that the Prime Minister’s statement contained any kind of threat. I regret the error.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.