On the futility of reform-from-within, incrementalism, and other political dogma

“Those who own the country ought to govern it.” —John Jay, former Governor of New York and the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court

by Duney Roberts

NEWTON—The quote above, attributed to John Jay in the October 1919 edition of The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, perfectly captures the nature of governance in the United States since its establishment. The legacy of this ethos is embodied in the mythical “American Dream,” which elevates and sanctifies private property and private ownership, investors’s rights, and personal gain through “hard work.”

Reform from within

The strategy of enacting change from within is one of the most destructive (and most trite) in all of American politics, and it plays into the hands of those who control the country through powerful corporations, the Democratic and Republican parties, and major media. Both parties rely on an unspoken agreement to coexist in shared domination of government authority, and their overriding cause is the exclusion of alternative parties and ideas meant to distribute power and wealth. It is quite natural, for this reason, that progress on important issues has come as slowly as it has. Think, for example, on the conditions for Black Americans during the 100 years between legal emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, to say nothing of the current conditions (wealth, criminalization and incarceration, health outcomes, and so on).

There is simply no reason to believe that politicians or any other prominent political figures (who dominate American politics) have any interest in changing a system that helped them achieve their status and helps them maintain power. Even insurgent political actors or movements quickly find that, when their influence can no longer be ignored, their leadership and ideas become appropriated by electoral politics and effectively diluted (and, therefore, controlled). As an example, look no further than the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members (some of whom were part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s) have endorsed and ratified the criminalization of Blacks through “tough-on-crime” legislation and through the movement of surplus materiel from war industries to local police. (For more information on this subject, see Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow and many other sources readily available.)

This pattern of reformism is further entrenched by the conventional wisdom that tells citizens and politicians that the solutions to all issues lie in the elusive Center of the political spectrum, an ideology now labelled “radical centrism” and backed by numerous think tanks and media under their influence. Readers should remember that institutions change people far more than people change institutions, and the pressures to conform are immense (and the rewards for doing so are too obvious to mention). Furthermore, the hierarchy of leadership and corrupt funding schemes within political parties ensure thorough control of their caucuses, legislative priorities, and messaging. Because of this, appeals to legislators and their spokespeople or even promoting candidates with nominally progressive tendencies have very little effect on political outcomes.

On incrementalism

Issues deserve solutions proportionate to their impact. The human-induced climate crisis, alone, requires urgent action, which cannot come political parties that routinely accept bribes (politely named “campaign contributions”) from industry and that constantly preach incrementalism (the idea that change comes slowly with the accumulation of minor political gains). Apart from the worsening climate catastrophe, there are the skyrocketing costs of for-profit health insurance and healthcare, ballooning personal debt (credit card and student loan), stagnated wages, endless and aggressive war and militarism, shameful homelessness, contaminated air and water, consolidation of media and communications, mass incarceration, unconstitutional mass surveillance, and more.

Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party has ever seriously demanded or worked for the eradication of any of the problems listed above, again for reasons too obvious to mention. Those who pay close attention will see that neither party has any intention to guarantee what should be basic and unconditional rights for all humans: the rights to housing, a job and livable wage, healthcare (free at the point of delivery), education (free at the point of delivery), clean air and water, and transportation.

In place of ideas, at least in the Democratic Party, candidates rely on their résumés and “qualifications” as their most important contributions to politics. Social identity too is prioritized in a culture taken by the virtues of tokenism, also known as “diversity” and “inclusion” (now favorites of corporate America because of their benefits to public relations). The Party regularly reminds the public that its top goal is electing more Democrats, with no standards for policy or ideology. Such an empty message facilitates the Party’s march to the Right, and it leaves the door open for figures like Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo (and, for that matter, Barack Obama) to label themselves “progressive” under the guise of “[getting] things done” and “[delivering] progressive results,” with no regard for quality or public demands.

While the parties themselves ensure ideological conformity of its members and the general public (to incrementalism), its satellite organizations perform the essential task of sheepdogging voters and prospective candidates for office into the party duopoly. Where the Democratic Party is concerned, organizations like Our Revolution, Indivisible, Third Way, and Justice Democrats, regardless of their origins or stated (respective) goals, ensure that energy that might be spent organizing outside the Party is instead channeled into electoral politics, where alternative parties have no power and where voters can be properly shamed into supporting the Party’s candidates under the threat of a Republican dystopia. This cycle is repeated every election year without fail.

One of the most important devices of control during elections is language. Phrases like “spoiler candidate,” “third-parties,” and “wasted vote” are used without objection and without examination. These phrases alone are worthy of a full article, but (for the sake of brevity on this point) it is most important to note that they serve to ensure that no truly revolutionary organizations can exist (Haiphong 11/07/2018).

Cries of fascism, ignorance of history

Relevant historical context plays almost no role in the news reporting of the pundit class. Since the election of President Trump, cries of fascism have reached a deafening level, particularly from figures in media who cater to voters of the Democratic Party and to followers of its liberal theology (on outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, Politico, HBO, Axios, and more).

Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report has explained that fascism is not new to the United States. He writes, “fascists are the political products of capitalism in crisis” and “fascists win power with the assent of strong sections of the ruling class, since those are the social forces that have the biggest stake in the old order” (Ford 10/31/2018). Elsewhere, he has described the historical characteristics of a fascist state, which, by definition, make the United States “the world’s first racially regimented society” (Ford 09/12/2018):

  1. Extreme nationalism
  2. Frequent resort to mob rule
  3. Oppression of an internal “Other” as an organizing principle
  4. Militarism
  5. The political dominance of the most reactionary elements of the bourgeoisie

Ford’s application of the definition fascism in the American context is backed by writers like Henry Giroux, who describe a “uniquely American authoritarianism” (Giruox 2017). Giroux explains that, “in [America’s] traditional narratives of historical memory, authoritarianism is always seen as existing elsewhere” (Giruox 2017). In addition, we are led “to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic and leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a competing mixture of both forces” (Giruox 2017). While the election of President Trump has shaken nominal Leftists (namely supporters of the Democratic Party and its spokespeople) from this delusion, it is difficult to imagine a similar experience of disillusionment if Hillary Clinton were elected in 2016 and became the first female president, immediately following the first black president. Our ears might still be ringing from the roar of self-congratulation and proclamations of (empty) progress.

Reporters with a respect for history would educate readers on the dangers and short-sightedness of “a phony ‘[R]esistance’ that defines fascism so narrowly that it applies, domestically, only to Donald Trump and his most crazed supporters” (Ford 09/12/2018). As it stands, fascism is “perceived as a new and singular evil, rather than the logical outcome of capitalism+white supremacy” (Ford 09/12/2018).

The near absence of popular and bold solutions, solutions that should be (as mentioned above) proportionate to the impact of the issues faced, reveals the uselessness of the “Resistance” to President Trump and the Republican Party. Medicare-for-all, for example, has overwhelming popular support, despite disinformation campaigns and questionable wording in polling. But enacting such a program is not seriously considered by either party. As Eddie Glaude explained in his book Democracy in Black, “those who shout doom and gloom fail to advocate for the radical policies needed to take our country back” (Glaude 2016). The recent increase in cosponsorships for H.R.676  (and the more watered-down S.1804) amounts to nothing more than political posturing for strategic gain, ensuring the electoral viability of those cosponsors who expect to run (in the style of then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama) in the 2020 presidential primaries.

How it all sticks

In addition to employing incredibly selective coverage of events that frames issues devoid of historical context, American journalists and news readers commit themselves to self-censorship (though they reliably deny it) and to accepting the major doctrines and precepts of state-capitalism and militarism. Noam Chomsky has written tirelessly on the subject, explaining that media present the world through “the distorting prism of a very powerful ideological system, which gains much of its power from the belief that it is free and independent” (Chomsky 2014, 1979). “Journalists and other commentators either consciously understand the path to success, or so successfully internalize the doctrine of faith that they become unable to think unacceptable thoughts” (Chomsky 1987).

Worse, media figures regularly criticize the state-sponsored censorship of official enemies, while, domestically, “control of expression by concentrated private power [emphasis added], as distinct from the state, is considered not only legitimate but even an exercise of ‘freedom.’” (Chomsky 2014, 1979). Consider who has a voice on major outlets in television and in print: politicians, police and representatives numerous other “law enforcement” agencies, so-called specialists in “national security,” former officers and soldiers of the military, business people, consultants, other journalists, and “experts” of every kind. Most rarely heard from are regular citizens (except when being mocked), activists and community organizers, protesters, teachers, public advocates, and those directly affected in the stories being covered. In the so-called Land of the Free, even the spouse of the President (often called First Lady) is effectively barred from publicly expressing opinions on any issues that matter, and the same goes for enlisted soldiers on the subject of war.

The people of the United States must demand their rights through direct action and political organizing outside the party duopoly, and they must look to independent media to educate themselves on the goings-on of politics and on the options available for political transformation. It is important to remember, first, that “journalism is a public service, but media is a business” (Janine Jackson). Secondly, as noted previously on NewtonWatch, the “changes that we seek will not come about in the form of gifts from above.” We must fight power with power, realizing that “only […] when the fight is won, do the powerful emerge as ‘allies’ who do their best to position themselves as having been working for the same goals all along” (Thompson 2007).

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