Remarks to the "What's Next" Conference of young Democrats, 2.05

By Crispin Sartwell


I am not a Democrat. And I'm not here to inspire you. I'm here to annoy you.


So let me ask y'all a question. Is there something you care about more than winning the next election? For example, curtailment of civil liberties; imprisonment without trial; torture; military adventures based on lies that kill tens of thousands of people? And I don't want you just nodding your heads. I want your push-comed-to-shove response. Let's say it's 2008 and the choice somehow gets to be completely stark: proclaim your enthusiasm for torture or lose. Which will it be? It would be nice if that were not a question, if it was everyone's moral intuition that you can't lives for electoral victory. Indeed, anyone who made such a trade would both an evil coward.  But, umä

     I don't believe that Kerry's position on the war was ever sincere, either way. That's the reason it was incoherent. I remember a piece in the New Yorker that said that Kerry decided to oppose the war after the Iowa caucuses to take the wind out of Dean's sails. Of course he tacked back and forth almost daily during the general election. Maybe you don't think that's true. If not, we'd really have to get down to the evidence, and I'm not going to do that here.

     Here's what I believe about John Kerry. On the Patriot Act, on No Child Left Behind, on war, on gay marriage, on whatever: in every case he voted and spoke with one goal: getting elected president. For Kerry and the Democratic leadership, getting elected was more important that a thousand American lives, more important than tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, more important than the Constitution. Now of course this is more or less just the reality of American politics. But, um, it is morally monstrous. I actually admire a straight-up enthusiastic murderer more than someone who with eyes fully open endorses murder in order to further a certain set of personal ambitions. I do not believe that our sad little species offers up any more despicable choice. Kill because you believe it's the right thing to do and you may be terribly, terribly wrong. Kill because killing polls well and you're not even worth frying. 

     I've been arguing that, as FDR's administration represented a sort of socialist revolution in America, GWB's represents a fascist revolution. Of course, in both cases the revolution is pretty mild: FDR wasn't Stalin; Bush isn't Hitler. But even if he were, let me put it like this. Hitler is an evil man. But by himself he's just another nutjob. He needs help. But he also needs acquiescence. He needs a whole citizenry and specifically a set of leaders who are just too chickenshit to say stop. Hitler is despicable, but the Vichy collaborators aren't even good enough to be despicable, if you get me: they're too empty. And Hitler can't do his thing without them. Hitler believes something. And other people believe what he believes. But the real nightmare is the people who know he's wrong and still help him herd the jews into the cattle cars.

      Here's the modern version of this mess. Your deepest convictions are at the mercy of focus groups. Every goddamn phrase that comes out of your mouth is the result of market research. This sort of thing has always been a problem in politics, of course. But I propose to you that since Clinton/Dick Morris it has become a disease that robs the Democratic party of all content, and turns its leaders into mere configurations of emptiness. Clinton was able to survive this destruction of human personality on a load of charm and expertise. Gore and Kerry, on the other hand, ran as zombies. I voted for Kerry. But I think Kerry ran the most one of the most despicable campaigns in the history of American presidential politics.  [other candidates: Buchanan, Humphrey, Nixon]

     I hate the Bush administration. But let me utter a few words of praise for Bush's campaign. Bush spoke plainly and took definite and controversial positions. In many cases, these were positions that were polling in the minority. In addition, though I think there are some dishonesties at the heart of the administration, including a willingness to lie to manipulate public opinion and a set of policies that enrich people such as the Cheney and Bush families, I also think that fundamentally Bush and most of the people around him believe that what he's doing is right. That is, to a reasonable extent ≠ to a far, far greater extent than the Kerry campaign ≠ it was a campaign based on convictions. In that sense, even though the policies it endorsed were wrong, for my money, the campaign was fundamentally decent.

     Now what I'm about to say is a horrible thing to say to Democrats, really a dangerous thing because it constitutes a motivation for further acts of moral self-destruction. But the fact that Bush spoke plainly and took controversial and clear positions on most issues was a key reason he won. People looked at Kerry as if gazing into a void. That itself presents certain dangers in a leader that makes people leery of casting their vote. No telling what Kerry might do in a given situation because he comes unencumbered by beliefs. I mean, let me ask you this. Had Kerry been elected, would there be any difference in American Iraq policy? How about in the approach to Iran or North Korea? He's unpredictable or unstable because he's always feeling around for the safe answer.

     Kerry was nominated because people chickened out: he was the "safest" choice. People had the sudden feeling that Dean was too extreme, or was unelectable, specifically because of his position on the war. Keep chickening out and you'll keep getting what cowards deserve: whomped.

     Anyway, what I'm saying is: focus groups and all the infinite mumbo-jumbo of political consultants, all the empty, high-sounding rhetoric that were entailed by the fear that drove the nominaqtion, were bad political strategy. Now the reason I hesitate to say that to Democrats is this: since winning is the only thing y'all care about, you would, if convinced by my argument, start to manufacture convictions. Or: the next time around we'll get a candidate who simulates belief. But surely that, too, was Kerry. He waffled minute by minute on Iraq in ringing tones of the utmost simulated commitment, with all the passion and truth of a great soul. I remember long about 2002 Al Gore saying: if I had it to do over again, I'd just let it all hang out. Here's what he was saying: the fact that I evidently believed and asserted absolutely nothing and played it absolutely safe in 2000 was the reason I lost. If I had it to do over again, I'd pretend to be John McCain. I'd pretend to believe what I was saying. I'd say controversial things as long as it wouldn't actually lose me any votes. In other words, "letting it all hang out" was just another political strategy, engaged in because the politics of emptiness didn't work pragmatically.

     In other words, if you take what I'm saying as strategic advice, then it won't work as strategic advice or in any other way. You'll hear what I'm saying as follows: next time we'd better simulate commitment. And then you're truly living in a hall of mirrors. You've reached the point at which it is literally impossible to say what you believe or to believe anything, because your act of belief is always strategic. But we could say this: belief is never strategic. You never actually believe anything because you think it's fun to believe it or because it will make you a million dollars or will win you the presidency, though you can start out on a lengthy process of self-delusion. But you believe something when and only when you take it to be true.

     So here, again, is the question for Democrats: is there anything you believe that you would not give up or qualify in order to elect a president? If not, I suggest that there is no reason for you to exist at all. Get out now: you can't possibly do anything good for anyone. Give up.  Disband your party. Hang yourself. You really won't be killing anyone when you do. So: is opposing the invasion of Iraq worth taking a political risk? If not, nothing is. If nothing is, die like the cur you are. That way you won't be killing people by performing acts you yourself don't believe in.

    [Actually, it would have been funny to watch Kerry prosecute the war, unless you were in the armed services: the wrong war at the wrong time: but an absolute commitment to victory.]

    Strategic questions cannot be the only questions. I think that the Democratic party had an absolute moral obligation to run against the Patriot Act and the war, to present an alternative to these disasters, even if it had been perfectly clear that these oppositions would lead to resounding defeat. It's bad going down to defeat for what you believe, but it must be really sorry to betray all your convictions and get whipped anyway. The election of 2004 should have been a pivotal moment in American history, but turned out to be one that yielded nothing but bathos. It was not a turning point because the Dems were too scared to turn. It's funny because the "get out the vote" thing was so extreme on campuses etc but it was actually a good year for apathy because Kerry refused to articulate any convictions. Everyone kept saying "this is the most important election of my lifetime." But it was barely an election at all. If you voted for Bush or you voted for Kerry, all you did was ratify the politics of the Bush administration.

     Vote or die. Voting is sexy. Voting is sad unless yhou can vote for something.

     So here's my advice, such as it is. Forget questions like: should we tack left or right? How can we carry Ohio? How can we appeal to Christians?  Who's the least offensive southern governor? How can we show that we're tough on terror? How do we reach out to pro-life voters? How nasty can we get in our opposition to gay marriage? Etc. Stop asking the strategic question at all for a second.

     Take a safari into your own heart and come back believing something. Now take a deep breath and say it.