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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Joining the Party, For Reals

Back in 2006, as the midterm elections came upon us, I realized that I was rooting pretty much all the way for the Democrats. I found this odd, when I stood back and thought about it--not just that I was voting Democratic, but that I was turning into a party-line voter at all. As I wrote then:

[L]ike most Americans these days, I'm not registered with any particular political party. There was a time when this didn't bother me; I liked to style myself an "independent" who voted on the basis of issues and candidates, not the party, and I took that as a sign of political maturity....I thought politics and political ideas were important, of course (I mean, I've studied them them whole life!), but I didn't see them as so serious as to mandate the kind of desperate, ethically compromising shenanigans that parties give rise to. So better to downplay that aspect of the political game as much as possible, I thought....[But] I've become a lot more democratic, a lot more populist, and a lot more expressive in my political outlook over the years, and that means I've become a lot more sympathetic to parties....My understanding of democracy follows participatory and developmental models; I think elections are about governing, yes, but are also--and more importantly--about creating and maintaining those assumptions and perspectives within which we recognize good government. Voting alone can't do that, of course--there are a hundred important ways in which citizens can participate in the generation of potential political worldviews. But contributing to, supporting, and voting for parties is perhaps the most time-tested and important of all those ways....Hence, I've found myself becoming a party person--sometimes even complete with the buttons and funny hats. Democratic politics is about building a party through your vote and other efforts which carry and thereby refine your ideas, not waiting for the perfect vehicle which can express those which you've refined all on your own.

Pretty good words, if I may say so myself, and I stand by them. Except that I didn't really follow through on them: my voting, and my thinking, may have become more aligned with the populist prospect of organizing and expressing my democratic, participatory wishes through a party, but I still didn't actually join. I never registered as a Democrat, I didn't send in contributions, and aside from some fairly intense activity around the elections in 2006 and 2008, I even did my best to keep myself off various e-mail lists. Why? Two reasons, I think. First, I may have talked about getting beyond the notion of "waiting for the perfect vehicle" for expressing my ideas, but I didn't; not really. I still wanted--and indeed, I still want today--to discover a genuine, politically viable (if only for purposes of expression!) Christian socialist or Red Tory or Populist party on my ballot. Second, there's that thing about taking official independence to be a sign of "maturity." It's a seductive--because, perhaps, accurate, or at least rather self-honest--way of thinking, though as Tim Burke observes in a couple of (to my mind anyway) mildly depressing comments over at Laura's place: "[T]he flip side of being mature is being convinced that nothing can change, life is what it is, you can't beat City Hall....Modernity is in a kind of midlife doldrum, where you want something better, want some change, but can't really make yourself believe that it could happen, and you've been hurt too many times before to take a chance anyway....[M]aybe we don't protest because we're more mature, more cynical, and don't expect that much. We'll be happy with a tinkering there and a reform here, we'll settle for things being not-so-good as long as they're not apocalyptic." Who wants to be apocalyptic? Not me: I mean, I've got my daughter's jazz concert coming up, and church potluck this Friday--who has the time to get all invested in big plans and angry protests and earnest organization? Not me, or at least so I'm tempted to think. Plus, overlaying all that, is my membership in our society's critical elite: I can always spot (or at least think I can) the compromises, the inconsistencies, the salesmanship that goes into every recruiting slogan, and who wants to deal with such constant dissonance? Again, not me. So overall, passive maturity seems the best bet.

Except that such an approach is wrong. It's wrong for all sorts of civic reasons, as Laura lays out in her main post. It's wrong because it excuses us from feeling anger, from feeling passion, from being caught up in the affect of public life, and when we view politics without any sense of affect, we have that much less reason to enter into exchanges and associations with our fellow citizens, which are exactly the sort of civic practices which make democracy strong. But it's also wrong because, well, let's just let Whittaker Chambers spell it out (in a passage that Caleb Stegall brought to my attention, in another one of his typically brilliant, outrageous, take-no-prisoners posts):

I hurried up to Columbia University to inform my friends on the campus that I had located the Communist Party, had made contact with it, and was, in fact, a registered member. By chance, the first man I met as I crossed the campus was one of my literary friends. I told him the news. As usual, he squinted one eye and lifted the eyebrow of the other, so that he looked as if he were peering through a monocle. “Do you drill in a cellar with machine guns?” he asked airily. It was he who, when I was first seeking enlightenment about Communism, had given me The Communist Manifesto to read. Now I saw that Communism as an idea was diverting. Communism as an idea to do something about was amusing. I turned away. I looked up another friend who was later with the Theatre Guild. More than any other individual, he had been directly responsible for swinging me toward Marxism. Now that I was a Communist, I explained, I would be able to bring him into the party at once. There were some moments of painful embarrassment. He was delighted at my political enterprise, but he had no intention of joining the Communist Party. Nevertheless, his position was awkward and he felt obliged to put me off without actually saying no. The same pattern was repeated with others. For the first time, I understood the contempt with which Communists pronounced the word "Intellectuals." I thought: “That miscellaneous mob in the English speaking branch may not know the English language, but they know a good deal about history. They are not as intelligent as my college friends, but they do not think that ideas are ping-pong balls. They believe that ideas are important as a guide to coherent action. They have purpose and they have courage. They are grown men and women, and these are children.” I felt a sudden warmth for my shabby, quarrelsome comrades and a readiness to overlook their failings in the name of their faith and purpose. I began to see less and less of my college friends.

If my populism, and my religion, means anything, it means that I ought to be comfortable with belief--belief in change, belief in ideas--and not use my own class- and profession-shaped position to separate myself out from those other folk who, not having the luxury (and the security?) to treat ideas merely as diverting, want to use them to effect change. Of course, lots of change is bad and many ideas are terrible; Chambers himself could certainly speak to that. But that doesn't, I think excuse me from being willing to join up with some other believers...maybe not my perfect match of believers, but for the moment, the best believers I can find.

And that, to bring this around at last to the point of the title, is why last night I found myself sitting in the basement of Watermark Books, looking around a table at about a dozen other people--college students, unions veterans, city employees, a Disciples of Christ minister, an aerospace engineer, a lawyer, a peace activist--and signed up to form a Wichita chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. As we shared stories and motivations, I didn't have much to say (my protest days are long behind me, though the fact I once was arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear weapons testing range in Nevada turned a few heads); in fact, it was a learning evening for me: learning about efforts to get our national politicians to think seriously about bank nationalization, to renegotiate NAFTA, to push state politicians to close the deal on a long-awaited and much-needed raise in Kansas's atrocious minimum wage. I signed forms, paid dues, put my address down on petitions. I was, for reals, joined up. And by the end of the night, I felt...well, not a lot a fury, but some good, productive, populist anger coming on.

Obviously, I'm not a great fit for the party. The odds of finding anyone through the DSA who agrees with my complicated views on abortion or same-sex marriage or any number of other socially conservative or culturally localist issues are probably pretty low (though it'd be a pleasant surprise all the same). But I can deal with that. In the end, I figured it was about time I signed up with something, and since I'm always calling myself a Christian socialist anyway, this party looks be a good place to start.


Rob Perkins said...

O noes! Russell is a socialist!

I dare you to shake hands with Glenn Beck. Call him "Brother Beck" and ask him how any Mormon in his right mind (no pun intended) could ever be a member of the Republican Party?

Just kidding. I made a similar decision early last year when I joined the Democratic Party just to be able to vote in caucus. Now, that's a "Big Tent" party, not necessarily aligned with anything more noble than winning elections.

But still, the family dynamics are astounding to behold, these days.

Matt J Stannard said...

Russell, I've known several really fine DSA members over the years. It's definitely where you belong, and you're going to meet some of the kindest and smartest people you'll ever find anywhere. Great move.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks Matt. Your thoughts on this matter are pretty important to me, as you were the one who introduced me to socialism, all those years ago. How about you? Are you a socialist in a formal, party sense, still?

togo said...

The DSA is just a wussie and irrelevant faction of the governing coalition. The governing coalition (which includes both parties) is simply the political manifestation of the zeitgeist: "Politically Correct", Multicultist, "The White Man Is The Rooot of All Evil", Gramscian-Frankfurtian Cultural Marxism and Globalism. Even someone like Limbaugh
sometimes discusses this in a superficial and comedic manner, but if you want exhausting detail check out, for example, Mencius' essays at Unqualified Reservations. .

The fraudulent "two party system" is meaningless-both parties essentially govern the same. The place to start the necessary process of dismantling it is at the state level with proportional representation and IRV.

The state legislators aren't about to act against interest and threaten their sinecures,but 16 states allow for constitutional amendment by initiative and referendum. Think of all the conservatives and "conservatives" fed up with the GOP and the growing disillusionment with Obama. The possibility that there exists a majority for CHOICE in elections in one or more states is pretty strong.

It's actually pretty moderate to elect one house of a state legislature by PR. Most countries outside the US, Canada, and the UK use it almost exclusively. Hey, given that fact you could even characterize the FPTP system as "racist". And since Israel also uses PR(a very extreme variety) one could accuse opponents of anti-Semitism!

togo said...

Here's one of my favorites by Mencius:

Matt J Stannard said...

Russell, I'm actually a member of the Green Party, although my orientation is to the left of most Greens.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Togo, the idea that the Democratic Socialists of America, as a party, are part of any kind of actually governing coalition in American politics is simply bonkers. And I'm not even going to touch your frankly weird racially tinged speculations about "Gramscian-Frankfurtian Cultural Marxism and Globalism." However, I pretty strongly agree with you about proportional representation, both that such would be an important step towards bringing meaning back to government, and that it wouldn't really be that radical introducing it.

Matt, that's right, I'd forgotten about your association with the Greens. I've probably voted more for Green Party candidates than any other third party candidates over the past couple of decades, but as a party, I think the DSA is a better expressive fit for me, if only because they appear to be more focused on the things I am sure about, and less concerned about various social/cultural issues upon which I'm probably (or maybe not?) an outlier amongst most of those calling for bank nationalization or such.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog via Douglass and Main.

I'm Zach and I too am a member of the new Wichita DSA chapter. I hope to meet and work with you soon on upcoming projects.