[This started as a comment to an article Arianna Huffington wrote for the Huffington Post, reprinted at Alternet, titled “What Obama’s Iowa Win Means For Everyone.” I know I speak in some generalities, and that there are many people who are not represented when I write “Republicans” or “Democrats,” particularly those people who to a greater or lesser degree may think like I do. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m speaking to media images, but also the discourses I experience on a day to day level in real life conversations and encounters with political rhetoric. I say what I say, because the stakes are too high not to say it. I hope some of you out there who read this will say it too, of course adding some of your own insights. In that regard, I encourage re-posting this and linking it wherever you can. And Now For Something Completely Different.]
The political field is kept narrow, and our political discourse even narrower, because it is dominated by a false fear of a Republican victory later this year. It’s like Hegel says in the introduction to The Phenomenology of Spirit, “Should we not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself? Indeed, this fear takes something—a great deal in fact—for granted as truth, supporting its scruples and inferences on what is itself in need of prior scrutiny to see if it is true … what calls itself fear of error reveals itself rather as fear of the truth” (Paragraph 74).
I think Democrats have to call out their own fear-mongering in the same way that Hegel here calls out philosophers before him for wanting to learn to swim epistemologically before or without getting in the waters of knowledge. We are afraid that our political discourse and efficacy are in danger, and in that fear we give it all up. In this way, it is not unlike when Benjamin Franklin said that those who would give up any of their essential liberties for some security deserve neither of them.
Democrats and Americans as a whole need to grow up, to as Kant put it emerge from their self-imposed immaturity, because in the name of their hallowed self-government they allow themselves to be governed by something that is other than themselves. Unlike what most anarchists, libertarians, minarchists and otherwise small-state proponents think, this something is not the government or even the media; it is an other voice internal to us that we posit out of something like what Hegel calls a fear of truth, or what Freud would have called “super-ego.” It is a fear of democratic politics, a fear of the responsibility implicit in self-government, that drives pluralist elections and “electability.”
In this respect, the Republicans somewhat have gotten things more correct than the Democrats. While you don’t not-hear it with Republicans and so-called conservatives, “electability” is a choice word on the mouths of Democrats and otherwise so-called liberals. Fear is supposed to be the choice word of Republicans, but it isn’t “electability” that they typically fear. They fear things like terrorists, women in power, people who aren’t white and ironically the government. In other words, what they fear are ostensibly real things, things that can be demonstrated to be false, that they can learn in a relatively easy move don’t need to be feared.
The Democrats, however, are afraid more than anything right now of losing the election to the Republicans. They have their assortment of real-world things to fear, like Fascism, Capitalism and identity-related violence. These are not the talking-points of most candidates or voters though.
On the one hand, Republicans are afraid of actual or ostensibly actual things; on the other hand, Democrats are afraid of what is possible. I think that the Republican fear is healthier, because by definition it can be countered with reality and perhaps learned from. Democratic fear is in reality itself, in the very fickleness of how things are, and in this way far unhealthier. What the Democrats fear has nothing to do with reality, and therefore reality cannot be countered with it, cannot be used to learn from their fear.
I’m not really endorsing the Republicans as much as I am pointing out the logic both parties (at least now) follow in their approach to politics. Even if it is at odds with it, the Republican logic is grounded in reality; the Democratic logic (of the last 40 years or so, though perhaps longer) has no use for reality, and in this way goes further than being at odds with it. Ironically, another favored phrase of Democrats, especially when someone else or among them starts to talk actually changing things, is that they, in their refusal to commit to change but to compromise, are realistic (or trying to be).
If I haven’t belabored the point too much, what I am saying is that the Republicans have been for the last several decades the party of what Nietzsche would call “active nihilism.” The Democrats, however, have been and most definitely are right now the party of what Nietzsche would call “passive nihilism.” I can really appreciate the distinction now, as well as what Zizek calls “interpassivity.”
Especially in the run-up to this election year, though over the course of the last two presidential terms, the Democrats have been more active than I can remember. It might be due to the growth of media technologies and the internet, but I think it has to do with actual activity too. In all of their frenetic activity, they are striving to do nothing at all politically. This is why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been the front-runners, and why Arianna Huffington doesn’t know what the fuck she is talking about when she talks up Obama’s win in Iowa. Or perhaps she does–that’s the scary part.
The Republicans, however, cannot pull the same thing off, can’t knowingly shoot themselves in the foot. Rudy Guliani, one of the more centrist candidates, was the expected victor of Iowa (recognition of Huckabee’s rise notwithstanding). While they might not believe in evolution or that women are humans, they sure as hell know how to represent what they believe, which is why Huckabee has come up the way he has. Gulliani doesn’t do that; he tries to appease too many with his centrist leanings. In other words, he’s a Democrat in a Republican suit, and the Republicans know it.
So, I’ll say it again. Democrats use a technique of fear-mongering (that they project onto Republicans) to control the political agency of other Democrats and fellow-travelers. Zizek has a phrase for the illusion of choice that works in Capitalist ideology that I would like to here apply to the specific choice of a Democratic candidate. He calls it a “forced choice,” where there are options from which we are allowed to choose but only one choice we are allowed to make (i.e. the “right” one). I for one am not going to let my choice be forced, much less by a practically psychotic fear. That is why I am going to vote for Dennis Kucinich in the Oregon primaries. I realize many Democrats despise Clinton but favor Obama, and about just as many despise Clinton and Obama but favor Edwards. I think this division exists in order to secure the kind of neoliberal candidate they all represent, though I have a feeling there might but probably is not something different about Edwards. If, while I vote for Kucinich, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards win, and my friends or fellow Democrats complain to me that it was my vote and votes like mine for Kucinich that allowed Clinton or Obama or Edwards to win, I am going to say, “No, it was your vote for [Clinton/Obama/Edwards] that did not allow Kucinich to win.” It is not my responsibility to vote for you, my friend; expecting and insisting on that is anathema to democracy. It shouldn’t be forgotten that not voting for someone else (in the way I just chastised) is at the same time voting for them (in the way you should), because casting your vote is like raising your own personal maxim in Kant’s Categorical Imperative to the level of a universal principle. It’s in this process that we make freedom both possible and actual. I say what I have to say here not because hate Democrats, but because what is at stake RIGHT HERE AND NOW is our freedom, and it is the Democrats who are threatening it.
UPDATE: When I say that the Republican’s form of fear is healthier, I’m not endorsing it. In “The Sublime Object of Ideology,” Zizek makes a point about how ideological figures function in the minds of believers and how we’re to respond to them. He takes the example of the Jew in 1930s Germany.
Our response to all the negative accusations about Jews is not “well, let’s look at the Jews in real life and see whether they match up to this caricature of them – maybe some of it is right.” Our response is to say that this figure of the Jew has nothing to do with Jews, and that comparing it to reality is to already accept a certain amount of validity to it. Zizek goes on to point out that a typical German response to someone pointing out how nice their Jewish neighbor is not to really consider it, but to use it as evidence of what they already believed. They say something like “yes, but that just demonstrates how sinister and sneaky the Jews can be: they won’t even show their true nature!”
Now that I think of it, I think I didn’t go far enough with how I characterized Republican fear. Their fear is the kind of fear the German has of the Jew in the above paragraph. It’s not that we can show them reality and they realize their beliefs are mistaken, but that we can make the over-arching critique that such-and-such has nothing to do with reality. In other words, we still have a language for criticizing it. With what I call Democratic fear, it is beyond even this kind of analysis. I myself was led to not take it far enough, because I position Democratic fear too closely to Republican fear by saying we can critique it on the grounds that it has nothing to do with reality. If this were the case, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem; we’d just call them out on it. However, Democratic fear exceeds even what I call Republican fear in that we don’t even have a language to respond to it.
The way Zizek puts it, what we lack now is a language to speak our unfreedom. It is at this point that thinking and action coincide, because we can’t exactly do the work of critique with (just) our intellects as we can with the Republicans (by just analyzing their beliefs and countering them in the field of thought alone; we just know by the structure of their belief that it is erroneous), but have to incorporate our actions too. That means doing things that we haven’t exactly got all nice and figured out in our heads; it means living here and now in the world as it happens.
UPDATE PART DEUX: Both to extend some of what I said in my first update, but also some of the original post, I’m making the relatively uninteresting claim that Republican ideology is characterized anymore by a distinct Nietzschean Will to Nothingness, whereas the Democrats’ ideology is anymore characterized by the more ambiguous though just the same ominous not-Willing. Here I am thinking of at the very end of The Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche reminds us that the Will to Nothingness remains a Will, which has the redeeming quality of being the same Will that can affirm life just as in the Republican/conservative Will to Nothingness it negates life.
My generous comparison between Republican fear and Democratic Fear should be understood more narrowly in these terms. As it unfolds for me, I’m less impressed by what I saw, but feel more confident in what I should say. The reason there is something worth considering in the way that Republican fear at once energizes and coordinates the collective action of Republicans (for example, to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ron Paul or to bring Mike Huckabee out of the depths of nobodiness to beat all other candidates in the Iowa Caucus, including the former supposed front-runner, Rudy Gulliani) is because it is this same energy and focus that can be brought to the cause of the Democrats and their true-Blue issues. What we have is an over abundance of activity, but not a whole hell of a lot is being done to uphold the unabashed political aims of the Democrats and their fellow Leftists. This over-abundance of activity without anything really happening is exactly what is meant by not-Willing.
This is not an alien idea to many Americans, who are already profoundly Freudian in their readiness to “read into” people’s motives, actions and speech. This not Willing is already in the excuses they give for not voting for any of the so-called unelectables (Kucinich, Gravel, Dodd, etc.). Those deemed electable, however, are those most deeply entrenched in the neoliberal ethos that has grounded the Democrats’ political efficacy to a halt. The typical response to this criticism is that it is unrealistic to vote for any of these other candidates. Perhaps, but only to the extent that our electoral process is itself unrealistic in terms of representing the will of the people. What seems more unrealistic is the very core concern that motivates such hijacking of the voting process to turn it against itself. When we are “forced” to be concerned with something like “electability,” our freedom is given to us on the condition that we don’t really have it at all. It is as if most Democrats were holding a gun to their head and telling people like me that they have no choice.
As I’ve mentioned, this fear of losing the election is a fear of democratic politics, a fear and hatred of actually being free and responsible at the same time. What’s clear about losing the election to the Republicans is that, in actuality, it might not be worse than if any of the front-runners win. In terms of economic justice, environmental protection and civil rights, the front-running Democrats are marginally “better” than their Republican counterparts. By that I mean that Democrats will be held to task to once again take the power away from the Republicans, and will continue to have a framework in which to set-up and execute a political agenda. Of course, since 2006 that precise strategy has proven itself false. The Democrats can only hope that one of the neoliberal candidates gets elected, for the ideological impetus to react to their destructive policies that benefit Capitalist growth and globalization, to say nothing of the degradation of the environment or the living conditions of the lower and middle-class, will be confounded by the fact that they elected them.
Like I have already said, people are already voting against their interests when they vote for those most electable candidate. In the long-run only a Condorcet method will truly relieve us of these problems. That still doesn’t mean we can’t shake off the deeper problem right now by not voting neoliberal and taking a lesson from the Republicans. The responsible vote is the pragmatic vote, though it is not necessarily the most popular vote either. If you are telling yourself otherwise, or worse yet others, you may count yourself among those who hate us for our freedom.