It's Not the Economy, Stupid

The last time a Clinton tried to get into the White House, his campaign motto was “It’s the economy, stupid!”

If you engage with peace organizations, you will very quickly be told repeatedly that nobody gives a damn about distant mass murder, and that consequently a smart organizer will talk to them about something local, such as the local impact of the financial burden of war, or perhaps the militarization of the police, or local recruitment, or local environmental damage from military bases, etc., but mostly the financial cost.

The reasoning behind all such thinking is that people are often busy, overworked, overstressed, concerned with their day-to-day struggles, etc., and so, while some of them might occasionally also take a mild interest in the affairs of others in distant corners of the globe, virtually everyone can be appealed to using local community concerns and, in particular, economic concerns related to their own needs and greed.

The evidence that this line of thinking misses something includes the following:

People often back political candidates who work against their economic interests, but who win their support for other reasons, including race, religion, militarism, nationalism, scapegoating, etc. Blaming China for U.S. poverty, or opposing the TPP and the WTO, or promising fewer wars or the abolition of NATO — these are economic positions, but they are something else as well.

Other people back political candidates who work against their economic interests, but who appeal to other needs. The Democrats are framing themselves as the inclusive, loving, multicultural, corporate militarist party, in contrast to the angry, white, bigot, corporate militarist party. Talking about equal (low) pay for equal work, and paid family leave, support for people with disabilities, equal rights for LGBTQ people, etc. — these are economic positions, and the Democrats defend them as supposed engines of economic growth, but they are something else as well.

People take incredible interest in elections, while taking very, very little interest in activist campaigns for better economic policies. People who try to maintain living wage standards or even stop banker bailouts make up a tiny fraction of the number of people who obsess over candidates’ personalities and related pomp and fluff.

Millions of people take part in some way in religion, which for the majority of them is not a tool for economic advancement, but something else entirely, often — for better or worse — a means of advancing a moral vision.

Activism around protecting the earth’s climate is far more widespread than activism around ending the earth’s wars and preventing nuclear holocaust. Neither disaster is local or economic in a simple immediate and selfish sense. Both activist campaigns are up against that same supposed hurdle. I would suggest that what actually holds back peace activism in comparison to other types of non-local activism is primarily pro-war patriotism and propaganda.

Pro-war propaganda does not focus primarily on any supposed economic benefit of wars. Sure, there are false claims made about militarism serving as a jobs program. But what turns people out in the streets to cheer for wars usually has nothing to do with their busy economic struggles. Rather, it’s a moral vision related to the supposed good work of policing the globe (whether the globe wants it or not), punishing evil monsters, slaughtering inferior populations, rescuing less fortunate peoples, etc.

When people all across the United States suddenly declare “We are all France,” this is not because France is in their neighborhood any more than Syria or Congo or Afghanistan is in their neighborhood. The magic of television and the internet has long made distance irrelevant. When people hold local drives to collect supplies for victims of a hurricane in Central America, it’s not because that helps their budgets or increases their job security. It’s because they have been encouraged to care about others suffering in a country not currently being targeted for war. The same applies to helping victims of natural disasters within the United States — often they are thousands of miles from those helping them. A candle light vigil for victims of 9/11, a marathon against cancer, and a campaign to save rainforests — these and millions of other activities have nothing to do with local economic well-being.

The peace movement of the 1920s was driven by as altruistic a distaste for any human suffering as was the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain. And it succeeded in so far as it did by advancing a moral argument against war, not a claim that war would hurt your next paycheck.

Of course there is an economic argument against war, but there is also a civil liberties argument, an environmental argument, an argument for safety against the counterproductive impact of war, and — critically — a moral argument against mass murder. And there is powerful potential in making the case for a coherent worldview that outgrows war and manages foreign relations by other means.

My point is not that peace activism is more important than economic activism. And of course economic activism must focus on the economy, stupidly or otherwise. But the need to do so with a passionate vision of a better world remains. At the Democratic Convention now underway, a victim of Trump University began her remarks by saying that Donald Trump had been born into extreme wealth. “And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that,” she said, before denouncing the scams by which he maintained and enlarged his wealth.

The main problem with this is not the nasty schemes by which Trump’s racist slumlord father piled up his money, but that once you’ve claimed that hoarding obscene piles of wealth is just fine you’re never going to rid the world of ripoffs far worse than Trump University — and people know it. People want the billionaires, bankers, and corporations taxed. People want the war profiteering ended. People want widespread prosperity and peace and massive investment in environmental and human needs including free college. They don’t want acceptance of plutocracy except for one plutocrat who’s running for president against another one. They don’t want equal lousy pay, taxes for weapons, but paid family leave for a week or two. That doesn’t excite them.

The Democrats have no idea why Bernie Sanders almost won, even against their organized rigging of the primary. I think this failure to grasp the obvious is in part a reflection of how lesser-evilist thinking is modeled on economic game theory in which human beings are reduced to robots with very limited interests programmed in to them. Only a privileged white person would go off and vote for a decent candidate like Jill Stein, the Democrats say, privileged as they are to not live in any of the countries their own candidate would bomb, and privileged as they are to have forgotten all the damage that she and her husband have done for decades, packing prisons, merging media, outsourcing jobs through NAFTA, destroying welfare, etc. They forget all this by focusing on fear of Donald Trump.

Sure, appealing to fear of Trump is an emotional appeal. But hardcore lesser evilists who recognize how bad Clinton herself is, argue for a vote against Trump and for Clinton, based on the idea that humans won’t act like humans. The theoretical lesser evil humanoid will protest Clinton’s wrongs while campaigning for her and after electing her, threatening her with voting for her again while feeling even more flustered about it than last time — and such a theoretical creature will do so only in swing states, while voting for Jill Stein in non-swing states.

The real world doesn’t work that way. People who join a team join its delusions and distortions. Campaigning for and resisting candidates don’t mix. And people don’t build momentum around mediocre muddling. They will, however, pour energy into a powerful vision of a better world, if allowed to imagine it’s possible.




A comment from Michael Lerner:


David Swanson’s point that “it’s not just the economy” motivating people’s political and electoral behavior was substantiated by my study of working class Americans in the 1980s, reported in detail in my books Surplus Powerlessness, the The Politics of Meaning, and the 2006 national best seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right.  It’s not just the Dems but most of the Left that is stuck in some form of economistic thinking (in the 60s we used to call it “vulgar Marxism” to recall that Marx himself didn’t think this way). Tikkun magazine was created in 1986 with the task of trying to educate the Left to this reality and share what we learned at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health about the psychodynamics of American politics, and possibly would have been more successful in helping the Left overcome this misunderstanding if the Left had not been so deeply invested in its own religio-phobia as to not want to take seriously any one who spoke about non-material needs because that sounded to them like a slippery slope toward religion, which most leftists believe to be necessarily reactionary [though they still celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. but forget that he was a religious leader and that the religious and spiritual themes he articulated were central to the successes (such as they were) of the civil rights movement–and they ignore the obvious contradiction between saying that they want a democratic transformation of US economy and politics, which presumably would require participation by a majority of Americans, and the reality that at least 60% of Americans still claim to be religious enough to go to church once a month and hence feel dissed by a Left that demeans people who are religious–something that we learned in our research with some ten thousand middle income working people.]
         In the Fall issue of Tikkun 2016 we analyze the psychodynamics of those who are now attracted to Trump and explain why they are not all just reactionaries and racists and xenophobes, and what a Left must do in the coming years to defeat those movements that are sure to play and important role in the years ahead even if Trump himself is defeated in a landslide. And Tikkun is inviting progressives of every sort to come together to strategize about the coming years–at a conference we are convening in Berkeley the (Veterans day) holiday weekend immediately following the election.
       –Michael Lerner
      (David, I hope you will repost this on all your lists, because my posts don’t get shown on them for some reason though I’ve tried to sign up for them.)