Tactical choices in tough times

The US midterm elections are approaching (if you hadn’t noticed) under highly unstable conditions. The stakes are high, but it isn’t always clear exactly what they are. An increasingly fascistic Republican Party is squaring off against a Democratic establishment desperate to return the Empire to responsible management. The vocal left wing of the Dems is able to push their leaders to make progressive sounds – which they are quick  to abandon in the face of vote counts and grumbling from  donors. See, for example, the speed with which the Democrats have become the loudest supporters of the police. But the ferocity and breadth of the right wing offensive has turned the Democrats into an unreliable, but still necessary, line of defense on issues like abortion, voting rights and health care access.

The following observations, offered by Frederick Douglass in 1864, are remarkably relevant to this scenario:

“We have spoken of the existence of powerful reactionary forces arrayed against us, and of the objects to which they tend… The first and most powerful is slavery; and the second, which may be said to be the shadow of slavery, is prejudice against men on account of their color. The one controls the South, and the other controls the North.

“The agents of these two evil influences are various; but the chief are, first, the Democratic party and the second, the Republican party. The Democratic party belongs to slavery; and the Republican party is largely under the power of prejudice against color. While gratefully recognizing a vast difference in our favor in the character and composition of the Republican party, and regarding the accession to power of the Democratic party as the heaviest calamity that could befall us in the present conjuncture of affairs, it cannot be disguised, that, while that party is our bitterest enemy, and is positively and actively reactionary, the Republican party is negatively and passively so in its tendency.” 

The two parties Douglass talks about would reverse roles a hundred years later – while leaving the roles themselves intact. Note how he clearly explains that neither party is a friend of justice while recognizing the need to ally tactically with one. Tactical thinking as Douglass practiced it is something of a lost art. We tend to think in stark binaries – either elections are everything or they are nothing. 

We have a history of leaders who insist at every turn that we support the Democrats out of fear of the right (thereby sabotaging the growth of a strong radical alternative). And there’s an opposing current that insists on “voting my heart,” (thereby putting their own sense of identity above all else). Neither position has ever appealed to me. I’ve always argued for building an autonomous radical movement able to affect the course of history. But if conditions require tactically supporting a tepid enemy to stave off an immediately menacing one then hey, I can do that too. Tactics.

In any case, though, tipping toward the liberals to block the far right is a short-lived tactic. What Dems in power are best at delivering is disappointment. So expecting on them to be a real alternative to fascism won’t work. Our real work is building a movement that’s tactical enough to detour when necessary around a swamp, but grounded enough to keep steering by the north star.

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