Symbolic Reassurance: What Elections Mean (Even the 2008 One)

It’s happening all over again. The so-called presidential election campaign season in the US is narrowing down a lame group of candidates to the three or four lamest of the bunch.

Meanwhile, the so-called left in the United States argues amongst itself whether or not it should support Hilary or Obama who, despite the fact that one’s gender and the other’s skin tone make them appear to be proof of our enlightened age, are essentially representing the same old war and capitalist globalization crowd that has been running the country since at least the 1980s. There are some on the left who think a Ron Paul presidency is the way to go, given his complete opposition to the wars of the empire. This bunch of folks dismiss his incredibly anti-immigrant stance by pointing out that neither Clinton nor McCain are very progressive in that regard either. Of course, they are right but that is not the point. The point is that the immigrants have no true champion among any of the presidential contenders.

My point here is not to convince anyone to vote for any of the candidates. That would be hypocritical, since I can’t see myself pulling the lever (or touching the screen or whatever) for Obama, Hilary, McCain, Romney or Ron Paul. Of the six, only Paul has any position that I can agree with completely and that is his pledge to end the war immediately. Despite this pledge, I find it difficult to jump on his bandwagon simply because, (as I wrote a few weeks ago) I disagree with so many other positions he has taken. Judging from emails I have received, his leftish supporters consider this to be nitpicking. After all, they write, if he ends the war than we can move on to take care of the other problems. This is precisely why I can’t vote for him. His positions on so many other issues and his consequent solutions are completely opposed to mine, primarily because we have very different ideas about the nature of capitalism.

Other left-leaning friends are jumping onto the Obama bandwagon. Let’s hope, they tell me, that he doesn’t really mean all that stuff he said about Reagan or his opposition to universal health care. Let’s ignore those votes to fund the war and focus on his opposition to it before it began. While I consider the symbolism of a Black man running the United States to be important, if that symbol has no principles he wishes to make apparent (or if those principles are antithetical to leftists), then is it really that important of a symbol?

This same question can be asked about Hilary Clinton. The fact that she would be the first woman president of the US is symbolically important, but without any principles, how much does that symbol matter? If this election campaign so far has taught the left anything, it should have taught us that aspirants to the empire’s throne come in all sorts of packaging. Yet, like the numerous brands of canned soup on the supermarket shelf, they are still pretty much the same product.

This fact alone is enough to make me once again withhold my vote from the presidential race. While I can certainly vote against John McCain or Mitt Romney, I can’t in good conscience vote for any of their potential opponents. I was recently asked if white America feared a black man running the country more than they feared a woman running it. I can’t begin to give an answer to that, but I’m pretty certain that if whoever wins the Democratic nomination is opposed by McCain, they will probably take a page from LBJ’s playbook and portray their opponent as a warmonger (which is certainly accurate) while portraying themselves as the peaceful alternative, just like LBJ portrayed Goldwater and himself in 1964. And we know how that turned out.

Then again, November is a long ways away and lots can happen. What is unlikely to change though, is the false choice voters in the US are faced with. Like Murray Edelman once wrote, national elections provide the majority of a nation’s voters with “symbolic reassurance.” He continues, writing that elections “quiet resentments and doubts about particular political acts, reaffirm belief in the fundamental rationality and democratic character of the system, and thus fix conforming habits of future behavior.” No matter who ends up being candidates on the November ballot, this election proves Edelman’s statement in spades. After all, what other northern nation would have both a woman and a black man running for its highest office?

Doesn’t that prove that democracy and the American way really do work? Never mind that neither of these two candidates propose any substantive reforms to big business-as-usual. They aren’t George Bush or the party he hails from, goes the assumption, and that should be enough even though either one will carry on the nation’s wars and enhance the extremely wealthy at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. Their existence at the head of the pack do exactly what Edelman meant when he wrote about reaffirmation and reassurance.

This doesn’t mean that things won’t change after the November election. In fact, working people and the poor might even feel a slight change in their living conditions for better or worse depending on who ends up in the White House. The fundamental economic and foreign policy reality will remain the same, however. And the rich and powerful will only become more so.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. svf said on February 2nd, 2008 at 8:54am #

    While I also disagree with Ron Paul on several issues (including abortion and immigration), I have come to the realization that it is more important to vote for the person who opposes and will end the senseless loss of American and Iraqi lives as soon as possible. That person is Ron Paul and he needs our support. Peace.

  2. PismoPam said on February 2nd, 2008 at 10:33am #

    “his incredibly anti-immigrant stance”
    You know, I had trouble with that one, too. Then I looked into what he says when he is given more than a sound bite. “When you subidize something, you get more of it” We offer FREE education (which is also free childcare), and FREE emergency medical treatment. Otherwise, women with children would not come. Might not mean so much to you, but they sure don’t get that in Mexico! Our policies ENCOURAGE illegal immigration while making legal immigration virtually impossible. It is very bad to have a country where so many people are illegal – they don’t vote, can’t protest, try to stay invisible. Ron Paul strongly believes in LEGAL immigration, as soon as our economy is revitalized. Half of my family is first generation immigrants. They support a return to legal immigration.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain said on February 2nd, 2008 at 4:33pm #

    As a non-American, my choice for US President is always the candidate who, in my opinion, will be the most destructive. You see, I believe there is no way to end US domination of the world, to end neo-liberal globalisation and the concommittant spread of misery and impoverishment, no way to end the ceaseless wars of neo-colonial exploitation and no way to end the threat of nuclear war, without the collapse of the global Moloch. I know our chances of surviving US collapse and the rise of China, or better still, some unimaginable system of global governance based on plain decency and a desire to see the human race survive beyond the next profit reporting season, are miniscule, but the alternative, the continued violent, callous, destructive misrule of the American global Reich, is plainly suicidal.
    From that one criterion, the suitability of a candidate to lead the US further into the shit, I was a big Giuliani fan, especially when he was joined by the Judeofascist claque. Its not that I relish the murder of millions of Iranians, but so monumental a miscalculation would surely hasten America’s Gotterdamerung, and save millions if not billions more in the medium and long-term. As Giuliani is no more, I must now wish for McCain. He has the prime requirement, indifference to the deaths of ‘savages’, as he showed with his gallant bombing of women and children in Vietnam, and his support for the carnage in Iraq. Moreover he is an intensely chauvinistic bombast, and one with, so I hear, a vile and quick temper. I’d say he looks the best bet at the moment, particularly as the Democrats cannot win, as Obama will mobilise the racist vote, and Hillary the misogynistic.

  4. ron said on February 3rd, 2008 at 7:26am #

    from Paul’s website:

    * Physically secure our borders and coastlines. We must do whatever it takes to control entry into our country before we undertake complicated immigration reform proposals.
    * Enforce visa rules. Immigration officials must track visa holders and deport anyone who overstays their visa or otherwise violates U.S. law. This is especially important when we recall that a number of 9/11 terrorists had expired visas.
    * No amnesty. Estimates suggest that 10 to 20 million people are in our country illegally. That’s a lot of people to reward for breaking our laws.
    * No welfare for illegal aliens. Americans have welcomed immigrants who seek opportunity, work hard, and play by the rules. But taxpayers should not pay for illegal immigrants who use hospitals, clinics, schools, roads, and social services.
    * End birthright citizenship. As long as illegal immigrants know their children born here will be citizens, the incentive to enter the U.S. illegally will remain strong.
    * Pass true immigration reform. The current system is incoherent and unfair. But current reform proposals would allow up to 60 million more immigrants into our country, according to the Heritage Foundation. This is insanity. Legal immigrants from all countries should face the same rules and waiting periods.

    This is why I can’t support him. His approach to immigration is incredibly authoritarian and nationalistic. The ones that get me the most are his call for deportations, against amnesty, and ending birthright citizenship. The latter is a slippery slope–what’s next? Ending citizenship for others born in this country that don’t fit our current needs?
    How can someone be for freedom (like Paul claims to be) yet support deportation and the incredible police apparatus that would require? Also, how can someone who claims to be for freedom and intiative refuse legalizing people who are here because they took initiative to find work and are only illegal because the laws were changed to make them that way. If you’re for individual freedom –as libertarians supposedly are–then how can you support making people illegal and refusing to make them legal?

  5. Seven said on February 3rd, 2008 at 7:46am #

    I’m not even going to bother with voting in November. Corruption at every corner you turn, every candidate you consider. Lies at the top of every hill and death at the bottom of every valley – all while the sky rains down the glorious dollar bill!

    If in the end, the goal was to have people like me completely withdraw their vote out of disillusionment. . . then you’ve won.

    You bastards, you’ve won.

  6. ron said on February 3rd, 2008 at 8:06am #

    actually, the goal is to help people remember that the elections will not change fundamental reality. Only people who motivate themselves to do more than merely vote can change that.

  7. cemmcs said on February 3rd, 2008 at 9:27am #

    Vote for Nadar.

  8. Deadbeat said on February 3rd, 2008 at 10:46am #

    Nader’s campaign will unfortunately retard the possibility of growing the Green Party and IMO will effectively split the Greens. In this case I see Nader’s campaign counterproductive. I would rather see Cynthia McKinney campaign as the Green Party’s standard bearer and bring more minorities into the Green Party. I think that Clinton has the edge and many people of color will want an alternative to the Clintons.

    Nader campaign as an independent will not coalesce the independent factions after the campaign is over. A run my McKinney as a Green has a better chance of organizational maintenance and cohesion after the campaign.

    Understanding this dynamic, ironically, and the “spoiler” label may get Nader more press and media attention this campaign season. The media is unlikely to give McKinney much attention or “negative” press.

    If Nader runs, while I may disagree with his run, I agree with his position on the issue and we need a voice who can clearly, especially if Clinton gets the nomination, counter the misleading rhetoric from the Democrats. Especially Clinton, who will say anything and distort everything to get elected.

    Case in point “Universal HealthCare”. Clinton is labeling her program as such and it will certainly retard if not end any movement toward single-payer universal health care. And just like in the 1990’s will set health case back another 15 years.

    While I agree with Ron in his analysis of the candidates, the biggest problem is the lack of cohesion on the left especially regarding the War on Iraq. The left has deliberately demobilized the anti-war movement in order to protect American Zionism. That’s the tragedy of the left in the United States.

  9. HR said on February 3rd, 2008 at 1:10pm #

    Given the current putrid assortment of candidates — particularly Ron Paul — the portion of my ballot having to do with selecting the next monarch will remain blank, unless someone truly progressive runs. It sickens me to see supposedly progressive people falling for Ron Paul, a person who offers nothing but a neofeudal state. The are plenty of issues as important, dare I say MORE IMPORTANT than the illegal wars. What a deluded bunch of sheep USans are.

  10. John Hatch said on February 3rd, 2008 at 7:41pm #

    If the election goes ahead at all (by no means a certainty) it will mean that iron-clad deals have been made with all the candidates to refrain from any pursuit of justice for the massive domestic and foreign crimes of the Bush administration. So much for ‘change’. America’s dementia began to really show with the election of the odious Ronald Reagan, and will not end until the world seriously has had enough of the brutal insanity.

  11. Gary Lapon said on February 4th, 2008 at 1:24pm #

    I don’t think the Bush administration has to worry about being brought to justice for their crimes, since the Democrats will be busy committing their own.

  12. hamoon said on February 5th, 2008 at 3:59pm #

    What none of the presidential candidates or the media tell us about is the substance of legal and illegal immigration. In the capitalistic society of US the value of human beings is as much as they worth to the system. The country is benefiting tremendously from the illegal and to a lesser extent legal immigrant because they worker take the jobs that no one else is ready to take, they don’t know the system well so will be paid less with less benefits. The agriculture economy of US without seasonal immigrant owrkers will not survive. the service job as well will not be cost effective without the legal and illegal immigrants.

    Anti immigrants conveniently ignore these contributions and complain why the immigrants are using resources such as education and health system in this country. unfortunately for them it would be too embarrassing to ask the workers to sacrifice their youth and life for services and not have any health or education for their family, that would be apartheid.

    So the argument would be if the American are ready to share their resources between their own in an equal way (since the US born worker with legal rights is less likely to submit for inhuman working conditions, not that this was not tried, look at New Orleans after Katrina that government was trying to lower the minimum wage) than having the immigrants do the low jobs for them. In that case the issue of immigrants to their country could have any practical meaning (from point of born citizens).

    The other side of argument (which the Democratic party followers mostly lean toward is to let the illegal immigrants continue to work in the current condition and not to harass them . This argument in surface appears to be humanistic but in reality perpetuates the capitalistic system of abuse and the inhumane status que.

    The only meaningful solution is to provide amnesty to all the illegal immigrants thus far in US with equal rights as a citizen, subject the US corporations working outside the US to the same regulations in regards to workers rights as if they were operating in US, and continue with measured legal immigration from all over the world to the US as was planned in the past. This might require enforcing the borders of course.

    The Ron Paul movement by nature could not necessarily provide a fair and menaingful solution in thsi regards. It is a middle calls movemetns and has reactionary dynamics in it. But exactly opposite to thsoe who become averted, the left should embrace it and help the movement to radicalize itself adn become more meaningful.

    Dont try to ignore the history or movements in the history, very soon you will find out that you will become ireelevant not the movements which are obligatory part of the evolution .

  13. hamoon said on February 5th, 2008 at 4:02pm #

    Deadbeat says:
    “While I agree with Ron in his analysis of the candidates, the biggest problem is the lack of cohesion on the left especially regarding the War on Iraq. The left has deliberately demobilized the anti-war movement in order to protect American Zionism. That’s the tragedy of the left in the United States.”

    Well said, left has become nay sayer for any movements that might in any way or form curn the ambitions of Israeli Zionists.