Sunday, February 27, 2005

Election Reform Event

Being immersed in a sea of emotional political enthusiasm is always a peculiar experience. It's not necessarily bad -- emotions that are detached from political engagement or attached to it in unhealthy ways are all too common, and I think are more likely to be associated with socialization into whiteness and masculinity and middle-class status in North America -- but it is always a situation which deserves some wariness.

This feeling of oddness is optimized when the group enthusiasm is mobilized around an agenda that is a very particular distance from one's own analysis. If the way I see things and the dominant view in the crowd are mostly the same (they're never identical) then I am more likely to feel some comfort in getting into the emotional flow of things, though my wariness rarely completely leaves me. I'm not sure I've ever experienced this, but I can imagine that if they were completely unalike then the event might be disturbing in other ways but keeping my emotions separate from the group would be fairly easy. But at just the right distance there is enough commonality to overcome emotional detachment but enough difference to make sure that fleeting feelings of buy-in and oneness with the crowd are profoundly disconcerting.

Today I attended the electoral reform event I mentioned previously, and I even lent some labour power to setting up for the event. It was organized by a relatively new group called Citizens Act.

As a commenter pointedly reminded me more than a week ago, I'm not a citizen of this country. Though I interpret that to have quite different implications than he would in terms of my prospects for political involvement during my stay here (post forthcoming), one area where it does cause me some hesitancy is around electoral politics. That's not an area I'm inclined to get directly involved in anyway, even back in Canada. I attended this event to support people I know in the peace group with which I am active and to learn more about the issue, and I see no harm in offering some comments.

The format was two panels of speakers, the first outlining the problems and the second looking at paths for action. The event was in some ways much like many others I have been to, though few enough since we moved to LA. It was held in an assertively queer-positive Christian church in Santa Monica. The attendance was probably two or three hundred; the sanctuary of the church was packed full. The crowd appeared to be largely middle-class and even whiter (probably 95-98%) than I was expecting given the area of greater Los Angeles in which it was held. As always happens at these things, it started a bit late, speakers got less time than they were expecting, and it ran overtime. I counted five different people recording video and at least two recording audio, a much more intensive representation from alternative and independent media than would be found at an event in Hamilton. I stayed for everything except the Q&A after the second panel.

In my previous post in advance of the event I characterized the goal of electoral reform as being a "non-reformist reform, which is an incremental change that increases the chances of winning future improvements." As much as the electoral system can be an instrument by which social movement energy is co-opted and dampened, and as much as I see the most important kind of social movement action over the long term being extra-electoral, any social change strategy that completely ignores the electoral realm risks losing chances to make small but real improvements in the lives of ordinary people. Efforts to make the U.S. system live up more effectively to liberal-democratic ideals (however limited those might be) will both serve to mobilize people and add energy to social movements, and will make it easier to translate energy from other movements into material gains.

At the same time, the politics at the centre of the event were not mine. The Democratic party was very much woven through the event -- most folks in attendance, even those who are Democrats themselves, would be quite critical of the party, but there were still plenty of examples of a speaker uncritically using "we" with respect to the Democrats and the audience uncritically voicing support. Even the Greens, who were visible and welcomed for their role in initiating a recount in Ohio, are at heart mostly a more strident liberal party with often shaky takes on race, gender, and class.

There were plenty of things from the speakers that made it clear that they were largely contextualizing things differently than I would. There was no critical contextualization from any speaker of the ways in which liberal-democracy will be flawed and limited even when the process-related problems at the heart of this particular discussion get addressed, because of the ways that power is dispersed along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability in starkly hierarchical ways throughout society, politics, and the economy. There were plenty of invokations of patriotism, which is not something I would do in anything resembling those terms for my own country. One speaker repeatedly referred to the U.S. as the "most important democracy in the world" with some sense of medium-term limitations in the applicability of "democracy" but without any sense of critical engagement with the modifier "most important" -- i.e. without any acknowledgment that whatever truth that phrase has is because of the role of the U.S. as the chief arbiter and enforcer of an absolutely brutal (and worsening) global political economy (which of course Canada benefits from almost as much, without having to do as much of the dirty work). The moderator went on some tangent at the beginning that I didn't entirely understand but which involved characterizing undocumented immigrants as worth mentioning because they are potential security threats rather than because they are a highly exploited and oppressed pool of labour upon which the U.S. economy (and middle-class) depend, and then he advocated a national identity card (yikes!). I also found it surprising that organized labour was not mentioned once through the entire event.

Nonetheless, it was a good event. I was pleasantly surprised by Bev Harris. She was very explicit in pointing out that corruption of the electoral system was not a Republican thing, but rather something both parties engaged in, in various locations. And she didn't use this language, but she was also very explicit in linking electoral reform to neoliberalism; she said that local election reform activists are most likely to find instances of subversion of sound liberal-democratic process in association with wherever the local "big money" might be, such as in land development or privatization of services. She also had some very sensible words about the importance of coalition politics with some much more pratical things to say than the usual uncritical liberal "diversity" schtick.

The speakers I most enjoyed were Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Global Exchange; Maxine Waters, who represents South-Central LA in Congress and is one of the country's most progressive legislators at the national level; and Greg Kealey, an aide to another local representative and an activist with Raibow/PUSH, Jesse Jackson's organization. I suspect that it's no accident that the latter two of those three were the only African American activists who spoke, given that their decades of activism have been grounded in experiences and analysis which would treat the need for these specific electoral reforms not as something newly discovered but as just one more piece of a struggle going back centuries.

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