Post-Mortem on Post-Election Post-Mortems By Michael Novick
Post-mortems seem to be very popular these days. Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell and several other authors have made the forensic study of corpses and bones the grim focus of best-selling crime novels. “CSI” has spawned a host of high-tech, high-magnification TV cop shows in which dissections are lovingly photographed and explicated. Now the election results have gotten the pundits working overtime carving up the remains of the Kerry campaign.
But the first thing to get straight is, what died here? If we’re fortunate, what died is the last illusion people had about the nature of this system and how to resist or change it. The corpses available for dissection — the Democratic Party, the ‘democratic republic,’ and the labor-liberal alliance — are rotten and stinking zombies with the flesh falling off the bone.
The Puerto Rican independence movement — Puerto Rico has been resisting direct colonialism, first by Spain and then by the U.S. since Columbus arrived on the island in 1493 — has a saying that there is nothing so bad that some good does not come of it. If some good does come from this election, it will grow from the unavoidable recognition that because of white supremacy and the grip of empire, the U.S. is the global bastion of reaction and racism.
People professed shock and outrage that, after proclaiming repeatedly that every vote counts and that every vote would be counted, Kerry meekly and swiftly conceded the election before all the votes were counted. What we need to understand is that Kerry had played his role, fulfilled his function and was prepared to fold his tents and slink off. Kerry was there to restrict the political debate, to establish the parameters of allowable dissent around a position that upheld all the assumptions Bush had made, and to serve as a safety valve acceptable to the ruling elite if by some chance the war, repression, and job losses had so soured the electorate on Bush that a changing of the guard proved necessary.
Once it was clear that the margin was very close, the rulers and the “swing voters” who followed their lead, concluded that the “devil you know” was preferable to “the lesser of two evils.” His job done, Kerry could not threaten the interests of his sponsors and the system by challenging the legitimacy of its corrupt machinations, or by exposing the working of the sausage factory with court actions that might reveal unwelcome truths through discovery motions and subpoenas.
WHITE SUPREMACY INSIDE THE KERRY CAMPAIGN
Despite evidence of vote suppression directed against voters of color, ranging from requirements to use “provisional ballots” and the denial of sufficient voting machines to allow Black people to vote quickly and expeditiously; despite numerous complaints and growing evidence of electoral manipulation by unverifiable electronic voting machines, Kerry declared that he would not challenge the results unless there was a clear chance that it would reverse the results.
What clearer manifestation could there be of the racism of his campaign, than this declaration that for Kerry, Black people’s votes are only important or significant when and if they could result in his election? The millions of dollars that the Kerry campaign and the Democrats collected to hire lawyers and litigate on behalf of voters’ rights will sit in their pockets unused, because the denial of Black people’s rights, and the final gutting of the representational pretenses of the system of government, don’t matter to Kerry or the Democrats.
But should this really be surprising to us? After all, Kerry and the independent “527” electoral organizations that backed him kept their own hands tightly on the voter-registration and get-out-the-vote funding, instead of dealing with Black community organizations that have historically worked on increasing Black electoral participation and turn-out. Why? Because they wanted to spend the money mostly in Ohio and Florida, states where they thought Kerry had a chance to win, rather than “wasting” the funds in New York, where Kerry’s victory was guaranteed, or in most of the South, where Kerry’s loss was ‘preordained,’ and the Black vote was therefore ‘irrelevant.’
Perhaps this cynical calculation is one of the reasons why Kerry failed to outpoll Bush in the popular vote, and why despite the declared ‘historic choice’ in this election, turnout still did not reach 60%. Kerry’s calculation betrayed an utter ignorance about the cultural and political importance of Black communities in New York, Atlanta, Jackson, Memphis and elsewhere, and their impact on the spirit and resistance not only of Black people but of thousands of young white people hungry for authentic expression. Or perhaps Kerry was aware of this, and as threatened by it as Bush! Along with the fear-mongering by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic and Republican gubernatorial predecessors, it’s one reason California’s Proposition 66 was probably defeated, despite polls showing the measure to reform Three Strikes had substantial support until a week before the election. (Actually, CA too has many as-yet-uncounted provisional and other ballots that could affect the outcome on that measure, but the Democrats have no interest in helping win the passage of a law that could be characterized as “soft on crime” even when it was a popular one.)
WHITE SUPREMACY AND SETTLER COLONIALISM IN THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTORAL SYSTEM
Hopefully, this election has drawn white supremacy and settler colonialism into the light of day for all to see, rather than leaving those realities shrouded in denial as they usually are. The electoral map that people have lamented so hard is a map of the Confederacy and of the states stolen via the “Mexican American War” from Mexico — the so- called “southeast” and “southwest”. This is a map of a domestic empire on which the global empire is based.
At earlier stages in U.S. history, white supremacy was more naked. In the southeast, the Slave Codes and later the Jim Crow laws of U.S. apartheid defined and enforced a color bar in politics as in all other areas. In the southwest, Arizona and New Mexico, which were captured in 1846, were kept territories for decades, not admitted as states until the white settler population was large enough to outnumber the indigenous (Mexican and Indian) population. It is not an accident that the Bush brothers based themselves in Florida and Texas, two states added to the US empire by illegal military conquest and annexation, that subsequently left the Union to uphold the slave system in the Confederacy.
This is not the first stolen election in U.S. history, just as Bush’s selection in 2000 was not the first time that a candidate who lost the popular vote became president. All the previous thefts were also based on white supremacy. There is some renewed talk about the flaws of the electoral college, which gives disproportionate weight to states with small populations, all of which have 3 electoral votes. But the fundamental flaw in the Electoral College system is the one that used to be known as the “three-fifths” rule enshrined in the Constitution — that colonized and enslaved Black people, who had no voice or vote, were counted to augment the representation and the electoral vote of the slave-holding states. Although there were some slaves in all states, the bulk of that population lived in the South. Thomas Jefferson became president based on the electoral vote of the “solid South,” swollen by 3/5 of the enslaved, disenfranchised Black populace. He proceeded to vastly expand the territory controlled by the United States, without Constitutional authority, by purchasing “Louisiana” from the Napoleonic empire. Thereby he fulfilled the ambitions of all the settlers to expand past the treaty limits imposed by the British on expansion into Native territory, and the desires of the Southern states in particular for land on which to expand the slave plantation system.
The advantage of living in a time when deep-rooted historical contradictions are coming to full blossom is that it gives us a high vantage point from which to look back and see more clearly the realities out of which we have developed. We can see more clearly now the predominant aspect of EVERY President, which is that of an emperor. Washington’s fabled honesty and his courage in fighting the British empire are less important than his leadership in establishing a strong federally-centralized system that could absorb new territories directly into the empire. Jefferson’s ideals of liberty and small proprietorship are less significant than his readiness to sacrifice his own children on the altar of racial slavery and ‘racial purity.’ Jackson’s desire to extend the franchise to unpropertied white men is significant only as part of a strategy for the genocidal ethnic cleansing of Native people from the southeast. Similarly, Lincoln’s willingness to initially oppose the war with Mexico pales beside his decision to “support the troops” once the President launched the war by voting for the Congressional appropriation to pay for it. Honest Abe’s opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territory stolen from Mexico, where slavery had previously already been abolished, was overshadowed by his declaration that if he could “save the Union without freeing a single slave,” he would do so. Lincoln’s sympathy for the working class and his near-Marxist opposition to capital, were over-shadowed by his commitment to maintain and consolidate a single centralized empire-state throughout the continental land-mass, and by his purchase of vast territories of indigenous people from the Czarist Russian empire.
In the midst of the Civil War, the Union Army simultaneously carried out bloody massacres of Native people. Wilson’s visionary ideals of a League of Nations and his profession of support for self-determination cannot outweigh his support for the re-creation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th Century or his use of military force against the Mexican Revolution.
We cannot deal with the current global reach of the U.S. empire, unless we first face the on-going and deeply rooted imperial nature of the “domestic” federal state, which means facing and dealing with the settler-colonial nature of the society and economy, land theft, slavery and genocide. Although there are significant qualitative and quantitative changes taking place in the nature of the state, society and the empire under the Bush regime, it remains true that as Steven Biko said, the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. In the U.S., settlerism and white supremacy have been the main source of identification with the oppressor and the development of consent for the empire.
Unless and until a significant sector of the “white” population begins to withdraw consent for and collaboration with empire, and to resist the empire by every means at our command, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for its crimes against humanity and destruction of the planetary environment. Frederick Douglass said that the limits of tyrants are set by what the people they oppress are prepared to accept. By restricting our opposition to the electoral arena, by accepting the legitimacy of the imperial system that the president embodies and heads up, we have lost before we have even begun to fight. The tyrants know just how far they can go to oppress and exploit us — and they will do so without compunction or hesitation. Only when we begin to build our unity IN OPPOSITION to the system, to fight independently for the interests of all oppressed and colonized people, do we have a hope of exerting our power to build a new world. Otherwise we continue to hand our strength over to our rulers who use it to oppress us; just as our labor creates the wealth that the owners of capital use to exploit us.
Let’s look more closely at the “three-fifths” rule in the Constitution. This decision to count 60% of the slaves, for the purposes of representation OF THE WHITE MALE LAND-OWNERS and slave-holders, was a compromise essential to transforming the U.S. from a loose confederation with a weak central government into a strong, centralized federal state with a powerful executive. It was a compromise between the slave-holding South, which wanted to count all the slaves, and the North, which wanted to count none. (Both sides of course were blatantly white supremacist in their position.) There would be no president, and no U.S., without it.
Commonly, U.S. history books claim that the 3/5 rule was eliminated by the amendments which were adopted in the wake of the Civil War, when Africans were freed from slavery, and without consultation or self-determination, declared citizens of the U.S. and the respective states. But with the defeat of Reconstruction and the on-going disenfranchisement of Black people, the reality is exactly the opposite. The formerly slave-owning South position has been put into effect — that is, as the return of George Bush to power makes eminently clear, white supremacists wield all the electoral power and votes of Black people in the states where, by virtue of the winner-take-all electoral system of the U.S., Black people are effectively disenfranchised at the federal level by white bloc voting. These are the same states where Black people were once enslaved. But it’s also true where incarceration has been used to replace slavery in disenfranchising Black people. This effect has only been magnified and extended in the 21st Century by the incorporation of undocumented immigrants and resident aliens into the same system, so that the electoral votes added to Florida, Georgia, Texas and other states by virtue of a mostly-disenfranchised Mexicano/Latino population are added to the Republican column. Even in California, the Congressional seat added by the last reapportionment went to a reactionary GOP candidate, Dan Lundgren. Another factor that magnifies this effect electorally is that the Black and Mexicano/Latino population is much younger, and disproportionately below voting age, than the aging, white, “high-propensity voter” population.
The system seen throughout the country in the election, in which white rural areas in the so-called “red” states overruled the “blue” urban counties, is reproduced and reinforced by the criminal justice system, in which Black, Mexicano/Latino, Asian and Native people are incarcerated outside their home areas. The census attributes their population to the white rural areas where they are housed in penal colonies, at the same time reducing the electoral weight of the depopulated and economically blighted urban areas they came from.
WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE ELECTORATE AND THE LEFT
White Democrats nationally never complained about the “Solid South” when the South cast its electoral votes and filled the ranks of Senatorial and Congressional committees with Democrats who professed white supremacy. It has only been since the global rising of colonized people, including independence in Africa, made the blatant disenfranchisement of Black people an intolerable embarrassment, that the ruling elite and the white electorate switched strategies. They moved the white vote into the Republican column. This insulated it from the effects of Black voters and ensured that Southern senatorial and congressional representation, and electoral votes, would continue to stand ‘solidly’ on the side of empire and white supremacy. With the shoe on the other foot, a few white Democrats nationally began to bemoan the “solid South;” but not enough, as we saw with Kerry, to be willing to risk destabilizing the system of white supremacy merely to win an election.
Concretely, what this means is that far from uniting after the election, what we need to do is to intensify the contradictions and cracks that have emerged in the electorate and in mass consciousness as a result of the election, and the dictatorship, aggression and criminality that it appeared to validate. Ninety percent of Bush’s voters were white, and whether he got an absolute majority or not, half the electorate and a large majority of white voters backed his play. But some sectors of white society had serious misgivings, enough to draw them into rudimentary political action and participation, and to begin to open their minds. This includes younger people, single women, and people in union families. (Obviously, all these demographic categories are not exclusively white; in fact their anti-Bush totals reflect the fact that each is somewhat disproportionately of color. But white people in these categories are also those most connected to, interested in and affected by Black people and other peoples of color.)
These people voted, campaigned and made donations for John Kerry not out of any allegiance to him or the Democratic Party, but out of total repugnance for the violations of human rights carried out by Bush. The task of anti-imperialists is to deepen that awareness and link it up with conscious solidarity with oppressed and colonized people struggling for liberation, conscious resistance to empire. Otherwise, the same weaknesses that produced Kerry — the white and male supremacist attraction to someone who looks “presidential” — will continue to prevail. And in that contest, a “gutsy, balls-y” Republican like Bush will always win out in the end over a “heady, touchy-feely” Democrat like Kerry (especially because both are heartless).
Breaking with empire is essential if real positive change is to happen. For too long, the left has been hamstrung by its own white supremacy and accommodation to empire. One key manifestation of this is the conception that our task is to unite all but the fraction of 1% of the population, the super-rich who expropriate the vast majority of the wealth and booty of the empire; this parallels the idea that the ‘working class’ includes all but those tiny sectors of super-exploiters.
But this is simply a white supremacist dream based on identification with the oppressor and internalization of our own oppression. If in colonized and semi-colonized societies, there is a large mass base for empire and the rulers — as has recently been evident in Venezuela, for example — how could we possibly expect that in the U.S., the belly of the beast, the settler colonial heart of a global empire, that change will come through the peaceful uniting of the whole of society against a handful of exploiters? The white people who identify most strongly with the empire, even against their own immediate economic interests, will only move and change — if they ever do — when a pole of opposition emerges within society that challenges and resists every norm of settler colonialism and empire.
We cannot base our strategies on what will win over white racists and reactionaries, because that is only a fig leaf covering our own acceptance of the limits imposed by the empire on acceptable political activity. When we begin to set our goals based on human needs and planetary survival, when we confront our own concessions to the empire — not merely Kerry’s concession to Bush — then we will have begun to set our own terms for the struggle and to define our own priorities and strategies.
We cannot duplicate the successes of the right, because they operate according to unacceptable norms of group think, hierarchical organization and oppressive social organization and stratification, such as male domination, religious absolutism and white supremacy, that are ratified and endorsed by the state and the corporations. But we should examine more closely how they have organized and how they turned out the vote.
The right, particularly the Christian right, is organized not simply or even primarily for electoral purposes. The Christian right organizes the entire life of its adherents 24/7. They have churches, schools, and a social system that reinforces their political indoctrination. The military functions in a similar way, indoctrinating and reshaping not only those within the ranks to wage war, but organizing family members, particularly spouses, to support them. There is little or nothing comparable in any way on the left. The right wing media echo chamber resonates on this pre- existing, highly organized social base that pulls others into its orbit.
We flatter ourselves that our failure to do the same is due to independence and open-mindedness on our parts. It is a failure of imagination and of organization, a willingness to live according to the illusions and shibboleths of the empire. Today, most of the labor unions are only a hollow bureaucratic shell of what they once were. Left and even anarchist organizations don’t for the most part touch our whole lives. They’re issue-oriented, and either amateurish or run according to the board and staff model of NGO’s and non-profit corporations. We should remember that the corporation as an economic institution was created to carry out the project of settler colonialism. The first corporations were the limited liability Hudson’s Bay Corporation, British East India Corporation and other crown-chartered economic and social enterprises that carried out the conquest and settlement of new lands. The fascist right doesn’t buy the illusion that the state enjoys a monopoly on the use of force. We have to begin to organize to defend ourselves, to meet our needs by direct action, and to create the world we want to live in by our own efforts. Such a strategy and priority will direct us to the most disenfranchised –the prisoners and their families, the homeless and working poor, the youth. The point is not to get them to vote but to participate with them in the self-organization of the oppressed and exploited with the goal of liberation. We must become our own liberators! We need to recognize that culture war, class war and, yes, even civil war are not analogies or theoretical constructs — they are realities that are all being waged in an exceedingly one-sided way at the moment, and we will continue to be on the losing side and the receiving end until we clear our minds, identify our strengths, build alliances and start fighting back.
Let’s look at one unnoticed white supremacist line of argumentation during the recent election campaign, and its bizarre post-electoral echo. I’m referring to the Kerry debating point about the “reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada.” Apart from never raising questions about why the life expectancy of Black men in U.S. cities is lower than that of Bangladesh, and never responding to express questions about the impact of the AIDS pandemic on African women in the U.S., this nostrum for lowering health care costs betrays a white supremacy so wide-spread and unconscious it was never commented on. What does “Canada” represent in the white imperial imagination? A safe, white, industrialized country. What about importing drugs from India or Brazil or Cuba, all of which make medications at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. pharmaceutical firms? What about Mexico, where thousands of U.S. citizens go to purchase medicine right now? Such Third World countries are outside the acceptable discourse, seen as dark, dirty and dangerous. Even hinting that their social and economic systems might actually be superior to that of the U.S. is unthinkable. So Canada, our “white” neighbor, is the only supplier who could be named.
Canada re-emerged in the imagination of Kerry supporters after his defeat, both in the map of the United States of Jesus, which showed the Kerry states merged into Canada, and in the fairly serious fantasy of escape, or escapism, to Canada. As a member of the Anti-Racist Action network, a direct action anti-fascist and anti-racist grouping of autonomous chapters in Canada and the U.S. (along with affiliates in Argentina and Chile), I can attest to the fact that Canada, although it escaped some of the worst manifestations of racial slavery, is also a settler colonial society plagued by violations of the land rights and sovereignty of First Nations native people. As a moderator of the Stop Police Abuse Now! email list on yahoogroups, which has a Canadian sister-list, Brutality Canada, I can tell you that Canada is plagued by police abuse and a growing post 9-11 repression. As an activist in the Campaign Against Militarism in Schools and opponent of the draft, I can tell you that Canada has already agreed to protocols with the U.S. that make political refuge in their country, particularly for war and draft resisters, much more difficult to achieve. And as a supporter of the Zapatistas, an opponent of NAFTA and its extensions, I can tell you that Canada, along with Mexico, has already been absorbed by the US Empire and war machine. Canadian and Mexican troops are part of the US-led Northern Command. The U.S., NOT CANADA, has first crack at Canadian energy resources and water!
White supremacist illusions aside, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide — certainly not Canada, which the last time I looked had troops in Afghanistan. In fact the Canadians just sent a new armed reconnaissance squadron there, and also adopted a tax break for Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. But I imagine that those thinking of heading north were thinking less about the demands of the struggle than about their own comfort level. What we need to uproot is not only the notion that Canada is a refuge, but the defeatism that gave rise to it. Because defeatism is just another excuse for succumbing to and thus collaborating with the empire.
“Canada” is another pipe dream. The time has come to get off the pipe cold turkey, to break our addiction to the opiate of white supremacist illusions and acceptance of empire. It’s past time to stand and fight in the name of humanity, decency, and the prospect of a life worth living for generations to come. The time has come to cast off and cast out all illusions. For white working people in particular, this means abandoning the magical thinking that white skin is somehow a shield against oppression. Privilege is also a mechanism of discipline, and blinds us to the deadly realities of our own oppression and exploitation. It is the sugar coating on a poison pill. Let this election be the goad that casts the blinders from our eyes, and lets us face reality, and maybe we will finally start to get somewhere.