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The Politician Who Sat by the Door: a Fantasy

A basic truth. Everybody needs some kind of job in this world. It’s what you have to do to eat and keep a roof over your head (though, these days, we should shamefully admit that not everyone who works earns enough for shelter). To stay in that job you’re often forced to keep your opinions to yourself and do as you’re told. That’s life as an adult in a hierarchy and most of us swallow it in some way, shape or form.

However, there are some occupations that impact fellow citizens in such fundamental ways that keeping your mouth shut, refraining from doing or advocating for doing “the right thing” has consequences that should be too difficult to live with. Think of jobs that have a direct connection to people’s health, like medicine or water quality — or their immediate physical wellbeing, like law enforcement. If you’re going to work in these types of jobs, it’s almost a prerequisite that you be ready to go against the grain when the lives of others are at stake. To put it another way, you ought to walk in the door prepared to go down swinging if it comes to that.

Is that a lot to ask? Yeah, it is. To keep us from going over the edge into a fully dehumanized world, is it necessary? Yeah, I think it is.

Politics is life or death

Politics is a prime example of an occupation that has a tangible, fundamental impact on peoples’ lives, especially the most vulnerable. Policy decisions tear families apart and kill people. It’s not hyperbole to say so. I mean it’s awfully fundamental to take away a poor person’s food stamps or put kids in cages or shutter mental health facilities or throw people out of their homes or devise and execute an extrajudicial kill list. Those things happen when a politician (aided by other politicians and bureaucrats) takes a clear action — or a clear inaction.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately.

Because the debate has raged within the vague contours of the American left since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grassrooted her way over top of the corporate shill Crowley to most likely take a seat in the House of Representatives this fall. Questions are rampant. How grassroots will she be once in office? Is she already backing off? Does she have any hope of being effective? Will they eat her alive?

Another basic truth. One we all know if we’re being honest with ourselves. Congress is irredeemably corrupt across both political parties. Virtually all members are now fully assimilated as characters in a shitty community theater production whose ramshackle sets barely conceal a system of legalized bribery, rigged elections, national security state subservience and institutionalized contempt for other human beings.

And current players expect new cast members to join the production without complaint or insubordination. For newbies who think they can go a different way, there are immediate precedents for them to take a look at. For instance, I’m sure it’s not lost on Ocasio-Cortez that the system has rather easily spat out honest actors like Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Kucinich (though let’s remember how he backed down to Obama on healthcare), or co-opted once impossibly brave leaders like John Lewis.

How to maneuver amidst massive corruption

One of the best ways I know to ground myself during these disheartening days is to set aside an hour and watch a Chris Hedges or a Cornell West speech. This week Chris got the nod and he hit me with this:

“A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is usually temporary because, sooner or later, that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience will not allow you to make.”

Those demands that Hedges mentions? They won’t hold them back while Ocasio-Cortez gets her office set up and figures out where the bathroom is.

They’re going to come at her right away. And they’ll take many forms: Flattery. False promises. Offers of mentorship. Traps. Invitations to cocktail parties, where they’ll let her taste the ambrosia of power and privilege as they dangle committee assignments in front of her (for a price). Efforts to keep her “on message” when she goes on corporate media networks (she’s far too attractive and articulate for them to keep her off, but they could if she doesn’t play ball). Demands that she prove herself a loyal Democrat by hitting the fundraising circuit ASAP. Intros to slick lobbyists and PACs who claim to care about her priorities. It’s not even beyond the pale to think they’ll monitor her personal life so they can have some juicy tidbits to hang over her when they need to. Click To Tweet

It will take enormous focus and will on her part to stay true to her mission and do right by her constituents back in Queens and the Bronx. If she falls prey to assimilation, she’ll betray her constituents — and achieve nothing in the process. If she refuses to be cowed, she could find herself out on her ass in two years.

The benefits of a short tenure

This one’s not a basic truth. Given the extreme state of corruption in Washington, becoming a pariah in the party could actually be a great option.

Here’s what I mean.

First, a quick question. Have you seen this early-70s film called The Spook Who Sat By the Door? If you haven’t, it’s B-movie perfection. All about a best-of-the-best black man who, post-civil rights, snags a spot in one of the government’s major military/spy agencies. He spends a few years getting shit on by racist colleagues and superiors. But it’s all part of his plan. He up and quits quits one day, disappears and takes all his new clandestine skills back to his city. There, he uses those skills to lead an insurrection on the white power structure. It’s satirical and political and outrageous and dead serious all at the same time.

(The best part is when he and his crew capture an evil general, dose him with LSD and paint him in blackface, but I digress).

With this film in mind, I want you to play out a slightly less outlandish fantasy with me, a little what-if scenario. Let’s say Ocasio-Cortez anticipates everything from the jump and does the following once she’s in office:

· Is nice as pie to her fellow politicians across both parties, but is a complete pain in the ass. She speaks unguarded truth at every turn. Refuses to bend on any significant vote. Says nothing when they give her a crap committee role and makes the absolute most of it anyway. Doesn’t bother fundraising for the party. Turns away lobbyists left and right. Disobeys every order that will compromise her mission. Gets disrespected at every turn. Doesn’t have a single friend in the chamber. Oh well.

· Next. Doesn’t hold back in any media appearance she makes. Goes full Dem Socialist on every network that will have her. Makes corporate talking heads go apoplectic. Smiles at every slanderous action they take in retaliation. Spends a greater percentage of her time talking to media she knows her constituents pay attention to. Indy media. Online media. Non-English language media. Lest we forget, mainstream media viewership is flatlining. Especially among the non-geriatric.

· Spends as much time as she can with constituents in her district. In fact, while she’s in office she encourages them to create a non-partisan umbrella activist organization in NY that unites people across divisions. They start agitating the shit out of mayor De Blasio (and key corporations) on every issue the new group agrees on. Other Democrats complain that she’s always in NY doing lame grassroots pie-in-the-sky type stuff. Bee oh-oh aitch-oh-oh.

· In two years, sick to death of her, the DNC finds someone to run against her. Doesn’t matter. Over the time she’s been in Congress, she’s been using her inside knowledge of the game to build a growing activist organization in NY. She has way more supporters than she did before and they love her because she’s all about her district and she’s never sold them out. She runs for reelection as a Democrat and, if she loses to the DNC-appointed shill, she ponies up and runs as an independent. If she still loses, she pivots and becomes a major force in NY as a leading activist and purveyor of third-party politics. If she wins, she becomes the first politician in ages to go her own way and not get booted.

It’s beautiful, right? I’m grinning just thinking about it. But wait a minute. Another quick question.

How likely do you think it is that she (or any principled but ambitious politician) would be willing to sabotage their own play for power to achieve the greater good? Awwww. Yeah. Uh-huh. Not bloody likely.

And this, my friends (to borrow a phrase from the soon-to-be-late John McCain) is why some of us out here on the non-partisan left are so uneasy about fresh faces like Ocasio-Cortez. Because, in a system this corrupted, it takes movie-hero levels of integrity and ingenuity to do anything worthwhile — and most people are simply not up to it. Certainly not all by themselves.

It’s all about movements

Despite everything I’ve just written, I’m actually thrilled that corporate-resistant Democrats (and Republicans) are barely, just barely, starting to find their way into office. Why? Because of how they’ll likely respond to movements.

If you look at virtually any of the changes in this country that have genuinely benefitted the people, they’ve rarely come about because of benevolent, heroic politicians. It almost always goes back to movements that were not integrated in the official political system — and how they scared the shit out of the powers that be.

High-level examples:

· A reconstituted labor movement, along with resurgent communist/socialist/anarchist groups, scared Franklin Roosevelt so much that he brokered a deal with the nation’s oligarchs to pass the New Deal.

· A committed civil rights, black nationalist, student, free speech, consumer protection, antiwar and counterculture movement scared Lyndon Johnson so badly that he passed legislation on voting rights, civil rights, housing, poverty, car safety and nearly got him to end the Vietnam war. And they still drove him out of office!

· Those same movements plus a growing environmental, soldiers’, gay rights and women’s movement scared Nixon and he started creating agencies left and right to protect the air, water and earth, endorse the Equal Rights Amendment, protect workplace safety, academic freedom, etc. Eventually, they pushed so hard Congress peed its pants and defunded the Vietnam war.

· Anti-apartheid activists made life so miserable for Reagan that he had to pull his support for the South African regime, hastening its demise. Anti-interventionist movements scared Congress into pulling funding for military chicanery in Central and South America (though Reagan was able to get around it by using the CIA and Pentagon to do his dirty work).

And it wasn’t just about how presidents responded to these movements. It was the fear these movements put in the hearts of corporate plutocrats, senators, house reps, university administrators and local politicians that made a huge difference in checking the oligarchy and improving peoples’ daily lives, even in the midst of ongoing egregious injustices that we’ve still yet to solve, may always be failing to solve.

But now money and militarism rule the day even more acutely and politicians are completely locked into it. The corporate oligarchs, their lobbyists and the deep state — that’s who keeps politicians in line. That’s who strikes fear into their hearts.

So, in this moneygundeath context, what types of politicians do you think are most likely to get scared by movements? Bought-off political hacks who wouldn’t rescue a drowning baby if their masters clucked their tongues and shook their heads? Or rhetorically peace-loving, anti-corporate politicians like Ocasio-Cortez? People who are going to feel guilty about it as they gradually sell out. People who are going to want to maintain their street cred even as they shed their egalitarian skins.

This is the real inside/outside game.

If you’re a movement person (and, at this point there’s no way out. We all need to be movement people in whatever way we can), you want nominally anti-corporate guilt-ridden assimilators in office, because they are most likely to be frightened of who will expose their failure and cowardice: and those people are to be found in movements.

That’s why you want more insurgent candidates in office. Not because they’ll save us. No one person can save us. But because they give us one more foothold to save ourselves. Remember that as we head into fall election season. Fight for the insurgents now. But save your best energy for non-partisan movements so you can scare the living hell out of them later. It’s the ultimate double consciousness and it may prove key in taking down the corporate military state.

“Don’t follow leaders. And watch the parking meters.”  ~ Bob Dylan

Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal's current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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