[Marxism] My last round with Jose G. Perez on the U.S. electorate

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Mon Feb 9 14:03:23 MST 2004


I'll try to pin down what I believe are my substantive disagreements with 
Jose G. Perez.  But before I do that, let me deal with the polemical noise.

This all began when Jose replied to a posting where I was referring to 
overall, nation-wide registration and voting patterns in the federal 
elections.  Jose G. Perez didn't immediately challenge the data I was using. 
  Instead, he introduced additional data whose sources -- he thought -- 
would be obvious to everyone.  Now Jose claims that that media-conducted 
exit polls data (the data he used) are better because they are carried out 
on time and at the polls, while the GPS survey is after the fact.

One may defend the GPS survey saying that, precisely, because it is 
after-the-fact it becomes possible for statisticians to validate the data 
properly -- even to adjust it and complement it with extra information that 
is only available after the elections.  We are constantly reminded by the 
recurrent revision of figures on unemployment, prices, GDP, etc. that 
on-time survey information is not necessarily better than after-the-fact 
information.  But, whatever the deficiencies (those listed by Jose are 
overtly admitted by the BLS/CB), whenever a government agency or the U.S. 
Congress needs voting and registration statistics for policy making, they 
don't use CNN/NBC, etc. -- they use GPS survey data.  They find it more 
reliable than the alternative.  My point here is not that BLS/CB have no 
disadvantages vis-a-vis CNN or CBS.  Simply that it is not unreasonable to 
use the GPS Census dataset.

I may be an unfair debater, but Jose G. Perez is no minor offender either.  
I don't know if he uses data "irresponsibly" -- I never used such strong 
term, but if one's sources are unclear or confused -- as his were in the 
previous posting -- then how can we expect a reader to be convinced by one's 
argument?

He now makes useful clarifications.  That is to be appreciated, but I figure 
he could have saved some of his exasperation and direct it against other 
targets.  I may be guilty of not drawing inferences obvious to him (or 
others) and of not using google proficiently, but I still think that first 
and foremost the responsibility to make sense in one's polemical writings is 
one's -- not the readers'.

Jose G. Perez corrects me. He didn't say that the actual participation of 
workers (whatever the precise percentage may be) "doesn't matter" and that 
their abstention is what matters -- as I put it.  He only meant to say about 
non-voters that "That is the more politically significant half of the 
story."  Fair enough, but what does "more" -- as opposed to less -- 
"political significance" imply in the context of our discussion?  Well, it 
implies that you either rationalize and advocate abstention or not.  The 
question of more or less political significance leads to a yes-or-no 
dilemma.

Jose writes:

>Julio Huato says, "Well, whatever José's figures show, they don't show that 
>the mass of U.S.  workers who are registered, vote, and vote for the DP is 
>insignificant," refuting one more position I do not hold and did not put 
>forward (I guess hay must be real cheap where Julio lives, he keeps putting 
>up so many straw men). What the figures show is that the mass of nonvoters 
>is even MORE significant than those who vote Democrat.

Whose straw man is this?  Jose's initial reply was to refute my claim that a 
significant number of workers are DP members, tend to vote regularly for the 
DP.  This is what I've been saying.  Re-read my postings.  I have not said 
that the workers who vote Democrat are more than the nonvoters, as Jose 
implicitly attributes to me.  Neither have I said that "the workers" (that 
is, all the workers or most workers) are in the DP, as he explicitly 
attributes to me.  If, as I've been saying, about half of the workers vote, 
how can "the workers," even half of them, be in the DP?  If the uses of 
google are transparent, 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 is transparent as well.

But let me make my point even more specific: There are more workers in the 
DP than in any other political formation in the U.S.'s left.  By far.  
Whatever we may think of it, these workers' main form of political 
engagement at the national level is their participation in the electoral 
process.  It may not be the highest form of political participation, but it 
sure beats abstention.  And that's all we're talking about here.

>Julio also challenges my assertion that the media systematically promotes 
>electoralism, the two party-system and voting, and fails to reflect even a 
>tiny bit in its coverage the views of the biggest "party," the party of 
>non-voters. He does this is a truly peculiar way, by citing what AOL 
>chooses to present subscribers when they log on, and claims, "On the 
>contrary, if there's a media plan ... then the goal is to sabotage voting" 
>because AOL is huckstering for Valentine Days gifts and so on.

What is "peculiar" is this way of arguing.  Jose G. Perez insinuates that I 
used the AOL example as some sort of logical, conclusive proof that the 
media promotes abstention instead of electoral participation.  I did not.  
And I didn't presume Jose would make the same assumption I was making.  So I 
clearly stated that I was using this as an "illustration."  That said, that 
the media tends to systematically degrade any inclination of people -- 
particularly the youth -- to take even the simplest forms of political 
action should be an axiom to every one of us.)

>I do not think that Julio's claim that the mainstream media is trying to 
>get people to ignore the elections and not vote passes the giggle test. The 
>capitalist press spends [clip]

Let me straighten out a little wrinkle here.  Jose has been referring to 
*the press*, while I've been referring to *the media*.  That may explain a 
bit of the distance between our views.  The press (well, not even "the 
press," but the "respectable" press, that is, a tiny group of newspapers and 
weekly magazines that have some measure of respectability among people who 
are politically involved) pays more attention to political events, but it is 
much less influential in shaping political behavior than the radio and TV 
(not to mention the "trashy" press and mainstream Internet outlets).  Many 
more people get the "news" via radio and TV than "respectable" or 
"semi-respectable" newspapers and magazines.  Overall, the media promotes 
alienation and degrades political participation -- including voting.  I 
couldn't make google find a good source on circulation and readership 
figures, but I wouldn't be surprised if People or Teen magazines have as 
many readers as the New Yorker or the Nation.

Let me now get to the main disagreements.

I have looked at the exit poll data on primary elections that José has 
gently referred us to.  And, I agree that the patterns of voting sliced by 
different demographic categories are roughly similar to those in the GPS 
Census data.  But whether our discrepancy in terms of facts and figures is 
bridged or not (he says a "majority" of workers don't vote, I say around 50% 
vote which is not the exact opposite of what he says), I find the following 
statement by Jose to highlight a big difference between us:

>The *political* point is that voters are "people with the biggest stakes in 
>society," as the census bureau puts it, and mostly NOT those who at some 
>level have realized that they have nothing to lose but their chains.

Jose G. Perez is obviously alluding to economic stakes and he's right.  The 
U.S. working class is a heterogeneous bunch.  A large number of them -- 
people whose main source of income is their wage -- are not absolutely poor. 
  Some of them are not -- strictly speaking -- proletarians.  Their real 
wages, including the external benefits related to living in a rich country, 
are significantly higher than (often many times over) those of workers in 
the Third World.  Whether this relatively higher standard of living is due 
to the spoils of imperialism (thus making them complicit of imperialism) or 
to higher average costs of reproduction of their labor power doesn't really 
change the raw sociological fact.

The left in the U.S. faces the problem of what to do -- HOW TO WIN -- under 
THESE circumstances, with THIS working class.  There is no way to carry out 
broad, radical changes in the U.S. society without the massive concerted 
action of the bulk of the working class.  Indeed, the needs and struggles of 
the poorest and most alienated workers in the U.S. are obviously part of the 
broader workers' movement.  But even from the point of the needs and 
struggles of these poorer workers, how are socialists to support them most 
effectively without broadening workers' solidarity?

Jose G. Perez says that "there is space, tremendous amounts of political 
space, TODAY, now, for a party based on working people."  I agree.  The 
question is how do we approach the construction of this party?  He suggests 
that the space is outside of the DP.  I don't exclude this approach in 
principle.  IMO, organizing non-voters around issues separate from elections 
is something that will complement, not substitute for electoral work.  But I 
also think that the logic of those movements will necessarily push people to 
electoral participation.

In fact, this is exactly what has happened recently.  While some people on 
this list may think that the left's recently intensified obsession with the 
electoral process is a symptom of acute reformism, it actually reflects the 
needs of the anti-war movement insofar as it is a mass movement.  The logic 
of mass opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq is what underlies 
the heightened attention people are paying to the elections.  The stakes of 
this election to the anti-war crowd, the most progressive national-level 
mass movement in the last decade, are high.  Banning very unlikely events, 
this push towards elections is unavoidable.  This has everything to do with 
the current weakness of the workers' movement to undertake higher political 
battles.  This is why I claim that the most economical approach to building 
the party of workers in the U.S. is by organizing and waging a serious 
battle within the DP, something that Jose excludes in principle.  But again, 
this is where the logic of the anti-war movement has led us -- the need to 
remove Bush from office.

Obviously Jose and I have conflicting visions of this and, perhaps more 
importantly, of what we need to do about it.  Perhaps where this difference 
in perspective is clearest is on the more philosophical issue of alienation. 
  It appears as a slight difference in emphasis ("X but Y" versus "no, it's 
Y but X), but it is not, because it leads to complete different practical 
conclusions.

Here is how Jose G. Perez rationalizes abstention:

>Julio Huato interprets non-participation in voting as "apathy," and I, at 
>least, believe this is fundamentally wrong. It represents disaffection with 
>and alienation from U.S. capitalism, its state institutions, and the 
>electoral farces the capitalists stage to legitimize the rule of their 
>representatives.
>
>I do not claim this is some ultra-advanced revolutionary level of 
>consciousness or anything else like that; but I do believe it does contain 
>more elements of *class* consciousness than are often reflected by people 
>who vote for John Bush as a "lesser evil" to George Kerry and/or 
>vice-versa.

I think I was clear enough to say that not voting "appears" as apathy when 
you look at things from the point of view of the workers who vote.  But, 
yes, it is obvious that I believe that this perception stands to reason.  
But even if Jose and I are attributing to workers our own beliefs and 
values, we still need to deal with the respective consequences of each form 
of political response.  Registering to vote, formally joining a political 
party (no quotes), and pulling the lever are directly and immediately a form 
of collective political motion.  By action, not by omission, this half of 
the working class is trying to influence the political process and they do 
it by converging at the polls with a common goal.  Is it a very limited way 
to do it?  Admittedly.

But compare that limited way of political motion to abstention.  Abstention 
is in effect a narrowly individual, reaction, which gets entirely 
rationalized within the system as a de-facto delegation of political 
decisions to those who do vote.  So it is sterile because it reinforces the 
status quo.  Non-voters don't even try to shape up the political process; 
they willingly assume their role as victims.  IMO, the goal of socialists -- 
the point of an enlightened progressive workers' movement -- is to shrink 
the realm of necessity and expand the realm of freedom.  How do giving up 
and bitching about the system help this?  So, let's not call it "apathy."  
Let's call it "disaffection with and alienation from U.S. capitalism."  
Still, it takes what practical form?  Passivity, paralysis -- the opposite 
of collective political motion.

I can only makes sense of this position if it is implicitly based on the 
belief that this form of "opposition" to the system has the potential to 
evolve into mass revolutionary motion.  But I fail to envision how this 
could be possible in the historical context of the United States of America. 
  The old manuals of Marxism used to highlight the dialectics of gradual 
quantitative changes leading to radical qualitative leaps, both in nature 
and society.  Are we relying here on a different law in operation, whereby 
the presumed leading sector of the U.S. working class suddenly heightens its 
level of political organization, leaping from deep funk and passivity to a 
high revolutionary pitch, without a previous accumulation of gradual 
'quantitative' experiences to sustain its leap?  Those are called "miracles" 
and socialists don't bet on them.

Political alienation is not part of the solution -- it is part of the 
problem.  If there is a mainstream civic culture in the U.S. that promotes 
electoral involvement, at least among certain sectors of the working people 
(i.e., whites and blacks workers more than Latinos), that's to be welcomed 
and pushed to the next level.

I will defer to Jose for the last word.  This will be my last posting on the 
topic.

Julio

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