Politicians aren't all the same, even if they all do terrible things

In "A Letter to My Allies on the Left," Rebecca Solnit -- one of my literary and political heroes -- asks the left to give up the practice of reflexively dismissing the good that politicians do, because those politicians also do terrible things.

In a flawed system, every politician is going to end up doing things you deplore -- Jeremy Corbyn, for example, whipped Labour Party MPs to vote for the Snoopers Charter -- but that doesn't mean that all politicians are the same (Corbyn will also do more to rein in financial corruption, inequality, and austerity than anyone else in Labour, and is miles better than the Tories), nor that their accomplishments amount to nothing.


In particular, US politicians are inevitably complicit in great horrors overseas, because much of US foreign policy is self-interested barbarism in the guise of fighting terrorism. But there are enormous differences in their domestic policy -- notably, there is one party that practices voter suppression and austerity, making it vastly harder to change things so that the US ends its illegal and immoral wars.

By discounting the good that wishy-washy "progressives" on the Democrats have done, we hamstring their ability to do more. It's fine to ask for more, but not by declaring that "not enough" is the same as "nothing."


So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12 percent of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement or alliance building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.

 A Letter to My Allies on the Left [Rebecca Solnit/The Nation]


(via Dan Hon)