Can you imagine working a job where most of your colleagues hated your guts—and wanted nothing more than to get you fired? It’s an enervating feeling to wake up each morning and get ready for work knowing that 8-10 hours of hostility and undermining await you. What would most people be willing to do to make that animosity stop?
A reasonable response to a question like this—provided you had some savings and were confident about landing a new job—is QUIT. But let me add to the question a bit. What if you truly loved the company, were exceptionally ambitious, and wanted to rise through the ranks—maybe even be CEO one day? How might you play things then? What compromises to your integrity would you be willing to make?
I started thinking about this issue the other night after reading an interesting, stream-of-consciousness and overly intellectual piece by playwright John Steppling in Counterpunch titled “Day of Wrath”. Because he meanders, he gets into a lot of things in the piece, but what got me thinking the most was a line of argument he advances about the mendacity of self-styled progressive politicians around the issue of U.S. aggression towards other countries.
For instance, he writes:
“AOC and Omar and Bernie have all called Maduro a dictator, and all mediated their anti intervention remarks (some retracting them) with calls for “empowering” the Venezuelan people (because, I guess, voting in free elections is not empowering). All endorse the idea that the U.S. in its strategies for Venezuela, have only good intentions. In fact both Omar and AOC have smeared all official US enemies, from Maduro to Assad to Iran. They are imperialists who have no problem with the slaughter of the global south. They are unambiguously pro Imperialist.”
To support his argument, he also goes on to quote the brutally insightful Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, who notes the racialized, paternalistic imperialism that’s embedded within the mindset of even the most progressive American citizens and politicians.
While these dynamics are undoubtedly true and evident through all of American history, I think, when it comes to politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders, something even more basic is at play—and it has to do with the toxic combination of ambition and fear.
Let’s talk about ambition.
One of the things the morally flawed aristocrats who formed the early government of the U.S. got right is the belief that politics should not be a career, but a service offered to the people for a finite time before a representative goes back to private life. For a variety of reasons, though, our political system evolved into a fusion between massive corporations and a massive bureaucratic central government. These are now semi-eternal, ageless entities.
All this infrastructure, absent term limits or other safeguards, makes Congress a great place for ambitious people to build a permanent nest for their careers. It doesn’t matter if a politician believes in truth and justice or if they believe in power and money. Either way, the majority of these folks, whether naïve or corrupted or both, want to be at what they consider the center of things. This is unquestionably the case for Bernie Sanders, who’s been in the Senate for decades now. And it may well be the case for Ocasio-Cortez and Omar as well. In all likelihood, they do not intend to be temporary ghosts in the machine (I wrote a piece a few months ago that imagines what that might look like). That kind of clandestine subversion only happens in the movies or on Mr. Robot.
No, they believe in the system. That’s why they worked so hard to get there. And, iconoclasts though they may be among the ranks of meager heart and intellect that populate Congress, they want to stay there long enough to have lasting impact—to rise through the ranks. So there’s the ambition.
Now let’s talk about fear.
Noam Chomsky, for all his human flaws, has always had a way of stripping away the extraneous from his political analysis. One of the ways he’s done this is by asking seemingly simple questions and then answering them. One of his most bedrock questions is “Who owns the world?” While my answer would probably dovetail with age-old wisdom from indigenous cultures about us belonging to the world (as opposed to vice-versa), Chomsky has looked through the eyes of the American empire for his answer. And that answer is “America owns the world” or, rather, America believes it owns the world. And those among us who really believe we own the world are the people who inhabit the vast mechanical ecosystem comprised of our government and our multinational corporations.
Not only do they believe it—and here, we’re talking about members of Congress, local and national bureaucrats, the surveillance state, the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the NGO complex, the judiciary, the corporate media, our nation’s elites and many of our everyday citizens—but they are motivated to take down (or, if we’re honest with ourselves about the true nature and history of our country, kill) any politician that doesn’t behave as if they believe that America owns the world.
Being taken down and neutered in the U.S. means being banished to the political wilderness, where you’ll have no impact on the direction of public policy, let alone political discourse. For ambitious politicians, progressive or otherwise, this is like death.
Chris Hedges has given speeches across the country for years about how the truest of the bluest cosmic patriots must be willing to wander the political wilderness—and must have faith that their efforts in that wilderness will create echoes and resonances that accumulate positively over time.
This takes enormous courage, humility and faith. Ralph Nader, one of our nation’s greatest public servants (who’s never held public office, by the way) currently lives in the wilderness that Hedges has so eloquently described. And I guarantee you he hates it there in his little lean-to. But that is the price, at least the non-fatal one, of defying the empire. He’s been willing to pay that price to keep his integrity.
If you look closely at the pre-federal careers of progressive politicians like Sanders, you will tend to find a lot less evidence of embedded racialized imperialism—which is certainly a feature of most members of Congress as well as the general public—and a lot more of an egalitarian, internationalist sensibility. In fact, I sincerely doubt that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar genuinely believe that the U.S. has the right or is better equipped to determine the fate of other, browner nations more than the people of those nations themselves.
But when you apply your olfactory skills to their half-hearted swipes at aggressive U.S. foreign policy, their qualified condemnations of foreign governments they know little about, and the sheepish walk-backs that always follow these minor outbursts, you will smell the unmistakable scent of fear. Fear of more dangerous media attack. Fear of their bought-off colleagues. Fear of losing committee assignments. Fear of getting primaried. Fear of reduced job prospects after Congress. Fear of banishment to the political wilderness. Politicians head to DC as idealists wanting to deliver change, they get changed by the system the minute they let ego get in the way and let fear of losing dictate their decisions. #PoliticalWilderness Click To Tweet
Steppling has got a piece of the story right. Most of the politicians in Congress love the empire. It fills their pockets, makes them feel important and lets them exercise the racism embedded deep within their psyches. But for the tiny few who actually have love in their hearts for the people of the world, it’s the fear of reprisal and dashed ambition that keeps them from striking genuine blows against greed, hate and murder.