The Slow Wheels of a Big Democracy

Jonathan Bernstein writes something about Iraq that I think a lot of activists will scoff at, but I think he’s right —

… as it turns out, the decision to leave casts quite a bit of light on how Madisonian democracy works in the US, both for good and for bad. It’s a story in which the ocean liner metaphor people use was absolutely apt. It took a whole lot of pushing, but this certainly appears to be the case in which citizen action, working through a political party, ended a war.

We did?

The story goes like this. Acting in presidential primaries and other primaries in 2004, liberals made it clear that the ambivalence (or, in some cases, solid support) for the war that was evident in Congress in 2002 was absolutely unacceptable within the Democratic Party. That accelerated in the 2006 primaries, with the sort-of-defeat of Joe Lieberman showing exactly where the party was. As a consequence, when Democrats won majorities in Congress in 2006 – in large part because unhappiness with the war had severely damaged George W. Bush – it was an almost solidly antiwar caucus.

The establishment Dems still didn’t get it then, and criticized bloggers and activists for working so hard to get rid of Lieberman. But …

Under the Madisonian system, Bush, who had two more years in the White House, was just as legitimate an elected official as were the new Democrats in Congress (as were the remaining Republicans on the Hill, for that matter). But the result wasn’t, as it happened, deadlock; instead, much to the frustration of antiwar voters, the result was a surge into Iraq and increased American casualties. And yet as much as it didn’t appear so at the time, the truth was that the surge was the beginning of the end: there’s a straight line from the surge through the agreement with Iraqis that yielded steady troop reductions under Bush, continued pullback under Barack Obama, and the final official handover today.

Antiwar sentiment helped put Barack Obama in the White House, and the drawdown continued. “The point is that the war ended because citizens, acting mainly through the Democratic Party, ended it,” Bernstein writes.

And so today’s outcome is the very direct, if distant, triumph of the Deaniacs way back in 2003. It’s the triumph of party actors who enforced an antiwar line on Democratic candidates in 2004 and 2006. A triumph of all the people who worked so hard for Ned Lamont in Connecticut. It’s a triumph of those who did it again in 2008 despite the frustrations of 2007 – it’s a triumph of those who didn’t walk away when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and the rest of them were apparently stymied by George W. Bush, but instead went out and tried to reinforce their numbers in the Senate and the House and to put an ally in the White House.

Here’s the critical part:

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: elections aren’t plebiscites on public policy issues. They don’t actually tell us “what the people want” in any kind of direct way…that’s just not something that mass-electorate contests are capable of doing. But they can be used by citizens, especially acting through political parties, to take action. To make history. And it’s damn hard; it’s a nation of over 300 million, and many of them really, really, don’t agree with you – and even more just don’t actually care about whatever it is that you believe is critically important, as hard as you may find that to believe. That’s not a flaw of democracy: that is democracy. But it’s also democracy to keep working, in and out of electoral politics, to find allies, to build coalitions, and to keep trying to win no matter how frustrating it gets.

Yes. And that’s why I get so disgusted with people who sat home and let the Right take back the House in 2010, and who say they’ll sit out the next election, or vote for Nader or some other loser to “send a message,” because they voted in 2008 and the country didn’t instantly turn into progressive utopia. It took the Right several election cycles and a huge investment in media and other organization to take over the country and dominate politics. It’s going to be a long, slow slog to take it back. And yeah, pulling the Dems in our direction can feel like trying to move a glacier. But it can be done.

11 thoughts on “The Slow Wheels of a Big Democracy

  1. ..And that’s why I get so disgusted with people who sat home and let the Right take back the House in 2010, and who say they’ll sit out the next election, or vote for Nader or some other loser to “send a message,” because they voted in 2008 and the country didn’t instantly turn into progressive utopia.

    It’s funny (if that’s the word for it) because while I agree with your reaction to the short view of these people, they don’t bother me much at all. I guess I’m not around them very much. Whenever I run into their writings on the ‘net, it’s pretty self evident that they have very little worth reading, and I quickly move on. I guess my interests run very much elsewhere.

    Maybe my understanding of how Washington DC works is off, but I hardly think ending the Iraq war was the result of citizen activism. My theory is that, at least on the issue of Iraq, there were enough sensible people left in this country to drown out the crazies. And after eight years of craziness, the sensible people finally won. Anyone with half a brain could see that Iraq was an expensive disaster, one of the worst geopolitical mistakes (its only competitor is the war in Afghanistan) this country has ever made. Pulling the plug on that money pit didn’t require much in the way of Madisonian democracy (whatever that is).

  2. If you want a more progressive government, elect more progressive people, mainly Senators and Reps. If you stay home and don’t vote and some T-party D-bag is elected, don’t blame Obama for not being able to pass progressive legislation. When Obama had the HOuse and a filibuster proof Senate, he got a lot of progressive stuff done. Then Ted Kennedy died and people in MA thought that a Repug would carry the torch of the vaunted Teddy. NOT.

  3. It took the conservative right approximately 30 years to get W elected – and that was barely. The process, perhaps already started, to go back to a more progressive way-of-life/future, will take decades. And some of us will probably not be here to witness it.

    On the other hand, this part of the Defense Authorization Bill that has the military take control of anyone suspected of being a “terrorist” is extremely troubling, especially as POTUS appears willing to consolidate more power in the executive by signing it into law.

  4. maha,
    Thanks for reminding individual people that their vote, evidence seemingly sometimes to the contrary, DOES make a difference.!
    If you think not, do you think President McCain would have gotten us out of Iraq? Or given us a nascent national health care system, or worked to get women equal pay, or ended DADT?

    As for what Bernstein wrote about us having an effect, the GOP knows that, and the fact that it CAN be done, means that it must not be allowed to happen again. And so next year YOUR vote will be as or more critical than ever!
    These voter suppression efforts around different states are the Conservatives attempts to prevent the popular will of the people affecting their agenda’s and actions. Opening up the flood gates to political advertising by and for the rich and powerful is another attempt to, if they can’t stop democracy, at least bend the people to their will by wall to wall political advocacy and outright propaganda.
    Both of these must be checked and reversed.
    And if you think the the long-term benefit of this country and representative democracy is best served your sitting out this upcoming election, or using your vote to protest some single or handful of causes near and dear to your heart, then you are delusional, and will hurt everyone in this nation except those who will benefit from the results.

    Because if you sit next year out, or vote for the Republican in some hope of bringing on some LiberalProgressive wave, well, then you don’t realize that you just lived through a not-too small one in 2005-2010, after which it appears too many people either suppressed their own vote on 2010, or succumbed to the propaganda that government’s out to hurt you. Oh, it has, it can, and it will. But not usually when Democrats are in charge, imperfect as they are.
    We need the to Democrats to prevent voter suppression.
    And if the influence of the rich and corporate entities are going to be slowed down and stopped, it’s not going to be anyone but the Democrats who try to reign in “Citizens United.” We need the Democrats, because right now, the alternative is unthinkable.
    As MLK Jr. said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And that is the Democratic viewpoint – and we’ve made some strides in the past few years. And that ‘mountain top’ that he spoke of is still a long ways off, but we’ll never reach it with the Conservatives. They want us all working in a ditch. Under the Republicans, ‘The amoral arc of the universe is swift, and will result in Dominionist Christian Fascism.” And, but for us in 2006 and 2008, the nation would be that much closer.
    So, if you don’t vote in 2012, or use your vote as some form of cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face protest, how do you know that you’ll ever have the chance to use it to bend that arc towards justice again?

    Sorry about the long comment this morning, but this is a subject I feel passionate about.

  5. Chief, I haven’t seen the final Defense Authorization Bill, but from what I’ve read on the blogs significant changes had to be made before the prez would agree to sign it. So for now, I’m in a holding pattern on it.

  6. If I remember correctly it was the rebellion of our troops (I suspect draftees) in Nam which precipitated the move to ‘give up’ on that imperialistic venture. The hawks apparently learned the lesson that calling up National Guard troops along with touting the evilness of the country they want to bomb, invade and occupy (Iraq) is the way to go rather than reinstating a draft.

    It is an historical fact that without a supporting military a would-be despot (or vengeful President/Bush) is powerless. (According to my Russian step-father it was when the Tsar’s military deserted him that he had any hope of suppressing the Revolution.)

    Got to wonder what the reaction would have been if Congress had re-instated the draft to fight the last two wars.

  7. Felicity,
    I don’t wonder for a second.
    If there were a draft, there would have been no wars and no occupations.
    People would have looked at the BS being thrown around a lot more carefully if the responsibility would have fallen on their draftee sons and daughters, instead of the other people’s enlisted ones.
    And politicians and MSM pundits and reporters who either trumped up this fiasco, agreed to it, went along for the ride, or turned a blind eye, would have been made to pay with their jobs.

    You are right in that the lesson they learned in Vietnam was to go with an all volunteer military. This way, whatever horror show they put them in, they could always say, “Hey, they knew the possibilities, and volunteered anyway!”

    So, if we’re going to have some sort of a national service program, the military has to be mandatory choice #2, to be fair to everyone. And if you might draw that choice instead of what you wanted, well, you and your family may look at the lying warmongers and crooks in politics a lot more closely, and hold them responsible, BEFORE they make catastrophic decisions for everyone. Put THEIR skin in the game politically that way. And then make them take their turn at their wars and imbed them with the troops for a designated period of time, too! With no maximum age for politicians and pundits.
    As the late, great Phil Ochs said:
    “It’s always the old who lead us to the wars,
    Always the young who fall.”
    Not if I had my say.

    • If there were a draft, there would have been no wars and no occupations.

      Hell, if there were some constitutional provision that said there could be no wars unless taxes were raised to pay for them, there’d be no wars or occupations, either. Wingnuts will put up with a draft (as long as they can wiggle out of it), but I think their attitudes about war would change if they realized they’d actually have to pay for them.

  8. maha,
    Respectfully, I disagree.
    Up until Little Boots, taxes WERE raised routinely during times of war, and that didn’t slow down anybody.
    And, in this day of modern medicine, you might have a better chance of not excepting someone like Rush because of tiny cyst’s on his fat, lumpy, cottage cheese, Congressional district sized ass. Granted, back in the day, it was probably only the size or a NYC or Chicago ward.

  9. In his book “The Glory and the Dream,” William Manchester included an apt summary of a quote by James A. Michener. Michener noted “starting with the Korean War in 1950, our nation developed a seductive and immoral doctrine which I questioned at the time and about which I have become increasingly dubious. The mistaken doctrine was this: that we could wage with our left hand a war in which a few men chosen at random sacrificed their lives, while with our right hand we maintained an undisturbed economy in which the fortunate stay-at-homes could frolic and make a lot of money.” Little Boots and Cheney compounded that by creating policies that allowed the few to make money and not pay the taxes needed to support their grand adventure in the Middle East, and to stay at home while our all volunteer forces died or survived grievous injuries in Iraq, sent there by officials who had no experience with the military or combat. Add to this the 101st Fighting Keyboardist pundits, who were all for dealing death and mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, while being unwilling to risk their own hides there. Et tu, Mr. Pilonidal Cyst Limbaugh?

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