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"Don’t wait on your leaders, because they’ll never get the job done"
Competing visions for the future between deft politicians play out in their records once in office and what they do with the platform; some choose to remain an ideological void, some simply cannot.
In 2008, the first presidential election I voted in, I was (for the time his candidacy lasted) an enthusiastic supporter of Senator Mike Gravel, but by the time the primaries hit Florida, his candidacy was all but over; George W. Bush was leaving office, but many of his biggest enablers in, and architects of, potentially the most criminally corrupt, amoral, and openly sociopathic acts by the US government, the war in Iraq were on ballots in both parties. John McCain, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, it was, as Gravel would put it during a debate in Iowa, a list of people who “terrify” him. I admit I found his move to the Libertarian Party, at the time, distasteful, and not particularly consistent with his goals, or that of his supporters, but in retrospect, now with my own experience in the machinery of electoral politics, and with a sense of the desperation for the need for direct democratic access, what else was he supposed to do if none of his peers were willing to listen?
A cornerstone of Gravel’s post-Senate career has been an amendment that would bring direct democracy to the legislative process—sometimes called the National Initiative. This was roundly rejected by not only the Democrats, but also the Libertarians, in their knocking of Gravel out in the fourth round of covention voting in 2008. Instead, Obama as a nominee, began to cave to the middle-right almost immediately, to win Florida, etc. where he suffered as an alleged radical during the primaries. Biden was a sickening choice then for his running mate as well, and despite promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (though, in the latter case, Obama was upfront in suggesting there was work to do be done because of the languishing occupation), and neither really happened at the end of his 8 years in office.
I’ve already voted in the 2020 election, but with the day coming up, I am reflecting somewhat on Mike Gravel, himself a 2020 Democratic candidate, and the influence his positions and career have had on not only my politics and perception of the system, but that of the generation after mine, either affirmatively or negatively in my views of electoralism. Whatever you might think of him, I don’t think a democracy that would reject more democracy because it conflicts with the obligations of our elected officials to donors and lobbyists and their legislative interests is a particularly healthy one, and I think for a lifelong politician like Gravel, the sort who normally the left would find repulsive, to delineate from his mirror universe success in the form of Joe Biden, this is a reflection of our republic over the last 60 years.
“The history of chance has not been kind to human civilization. A carriage driver’s wrong turn facilitated the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, by nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. That simple navigational misstep triggered the First World War.” writes Gravel in The Failure of Representative Government and the Solution as analogue for the Damascus nuclear incident that almost triggered doomsday; we tempt fate on a daily basis by persisting in the belief that the United States has enemies around every corner, that this is unanticipateable, that our freedom is the biggest freedom and the one worth oppressing others to protect. Gravel, a vocal opponent of the War in Iraq, but also originally having rose to prominence for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record, understands the role imperialism, and the propagandization of the residents of the imperial core, plays in normalizing the belief that we can do no wrong, that we’re in capable hands, that the finger on the button is not a sociopathic one, and even if it weren’t, is it even really solely up to that finger when “go time” will be?
Like Mike Gravel, Joe Biden sought public office specifically through a method tailored to where winning would be easiest— this doesn’t undermine popularity with the constituents, but that the candidacy is meant to meet that marketplace. Gravel went to Alaska, Biden went to Delaware, neither would’ve been typical Democrats at the time. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here discussing whether or not anyone should consider Joe Biden fit for office, comparatively or not, but I do want to illustrate something about the man that would, at the time of his decision to seek office, was just one of many competing visions for the future; the only difference between himself and a guy like Gravel? His would align best with the interests of the prevaling economic system.
“It is no small irony that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in the cradle of the New Deal order he would later help dismantle. Neither Biden nor the United States is unique in this respect. Look at just about any developed country’s generous postwar welfare state, and among its rich and powerful foes, you’ll find many who benefited most from its generosity, only to turn against the system that created them, convinced they had done it all on their own.” says Branko Marcetic in Yesterday’s Man, and Marcetic goes on to explain what made Biden, the man, so crucial to advancing those interests:
“A registered independent since the age of 21, Biden was first courted by local Republicans to make a run for office before officially becoming a Democrat in 1969. At only 27, the party tapped him to run for the New Castle County Council the following year, a campaign for which he kept his party affiliation out of promotional material. “The district where he was running was overwhelmingly Republican, and the county as a whole was shaped by the politics of suburban white flight: while its population increased fourfold between 1940 and 1980, Wilmington, the county seat, saw its numbers drop by 38 percent. Biden was perhaps the perfect fit. As a former state Democratic Party chairman who observed Biden’s career from the start later recalled, “He had lots of energy and idealism and was always assertive. But to my knowledge, he had no substantive ideology.”
Devoid of ideology, he would become whoever he needed to be— a respected public defender becoming an office holder is certainly not unheard of, and to understand the single-party corporatist structure of today’s electoral system and our government as a whole, one must understand that this ideological vacuum was crucial. Joe Biden becoming the Democratic nominee after multiple previous attempts where, both, he’d either been rendered disqualified by public opinion, or polled below 1% in nearly every primary he competed in, makes a certain kind of sense when he represents the Platonic ideal of what a Democratic Statesman looks like and believes— this was a race with no room for ideology, but one that sorely needed it to understand where we are and how we got there, and that this is no longer an appropriate response, whereas before it was merely a callous and dissembling response in its protection of corporatism and imperialist outcomes.
Biden, the architect of the Crime Bill, justified by his role in the Kerry Committee’s work after Iran-Contra, resupplying the Iraq War he helped the Bush Administration architect, his role in destablizing Soviet Russia to justify US intervention in Afghanistan. On this last point, the notion that the Democrats are clean of the US role in foreign intervention, this complicity goes all the way back: while in Moscow, he openly perpetuated the myth that Brezhnev was too sick to govern, which was the used as pretext for the US to intervene in Afghanistan, indirectly creating al Qaeda. The CIA thanks him profusely for this in recently archived documents. This is similar to the blowback that created ISIS under the Obama administration. My point isn’t to litigate Biden’s career, specifically, but that this is the avatar of the Democratic Party both of these men came up in, and ultimately sought the same offices as peers, and later opponents.
Mike Gravel, like Biden, was the child of Catholic immigrants (French-Canadian, in Gravel’s case) raised in decidedly working class environment (more decidedly so in Gravel’s case). Gravel would seek opportunities through the intelligence corps, serving in the Korean War, and returned to the US to study economics, working various labor and service jobs to pay bills. Upon moving to pre-statehood Alaska in the 50’s, he worked in the railroad, eventually becoming involved in real estate development. He saw this frontier as a place where someone with ideological convictions could shape the future of political culture there and became involved in civic works. His approach to seeking office, however, mirrored Biden’s despite being more ideologically commital to the Democrats and the fine line being walked on topics like the Vietnam war, communism, etc. By the time he was elected to the Senate, he himself was a success in real estate; something many consider to be a conflict of interest that ultimately cost him his Senate seat years later, despite his ideological development and strong views on nuclear policy, the environment, championing a minimum income, and coming out against the imperialist agenda, repeatedly saying of Vietnam as he did about Iraq decades later, that these losses were preventable, and “in vain” in their stated, propagandistic purposes (anti-communism as protectionism of freedom).
Gravel, in 2018, wrote, “The global success of American imperialism has drugged Americans with a hubris steeped in the religious and intellectual exceptionalism of our first colonists. This ongoing hubris now facilitates easy control of our governing institutions by the elite owner/profiteers of the military-industrial complex, by corporate titans focused on shareholder profits, and by the excesses of our banking systems.” There was only one candidate openly seeking the Democratic nomination at the time who spoke frankly (if not understating) about the reality of our system (that we’d already lost to fascism), and if not for a snub of the National Initiative in 2016 and 2020, desite ultimately earning Gravel’s endorsement, Gravel might not have come out of retirement to run in 2020 just as he had in 2008 amidst an opportunity to change the course of the next generation of American policymakers. But, if Bernie Sanders was destined to be shunted out of policy decisions for the platform, what chance did Gravel ever have? Candidates like Pete Buttigieg (almost an engineered copy of young Biden, with the added sociopathic element of having served in the War on Terror many years after it was considered broadly to be immoral, but also explicity for the purpose of padding a resume for seeking office) and Senators like Elizabeth Warren (who pay lip service to progressive ideals, while advancing things like the CFPB, which nominally recompensates consumers while failing to meaningfully censure the financial institutions—the number of banking executives taken to task in any way even resembling a consequence for these actions hovers near 0) are considered the present and future of the party, failing to even produce a proper successive generation to the Biden model of patronage to the party establishment.
Soberly, Gravel identifies the problem with all of this, and why this lack of “participation in power” as Cicero puts it no longer exists without a direct democracy produces a system where freedom, as a result, also no longer exists: “Representatives in government have a monopoly on making laws, thereby perpetuating their power and that of their elite benefactors, who really control governments and the institutions of society.” He goes onto explain it was in the interests of the Framers of the Constition to blunt the edges of democracy, “The framers had to exclude the people from the ratification process in order to secure their flawed Constitution. They had to avoid a ratifying vote in both the confederation Congress and in northern state legislatures, where there would have been strong opposition to maintaining slavery in perpetuity. The solution was to persuade both institutions—national and state governments—to refer ratification to state conventions called for that specific purpose. This convention scenario permitted the elites to keep the people at arm’s length, denying them not only a legislative role in drafting the Constitution but also a role in its ratification.”
Gravel experienced setback after setback right up until the moment he dropped out of the 2020 election, due to various party regulations and machinations that kept him off of the debate stage, but the one I consider most emblematic of his above assertion, but also why Gravel himself is evidence that one’s ideology shouldn’t hinge on a single individual (maybe something he’d agree with himself) or their methods, is the Supreme Court’s decision in Gravel v. United States. Gravel, having read the Pentagon Papers, into the Congressional Record, leveraging his protections as a member of Congress to the publication of these documents in a manner many newspapers had been barred from doing, decided he wanted to leverage these same protections to publish them through a private press to make available to the public; something lower courts disagreed with on both counts. Ultimately, the court ruled he and his aides had this right (if not protection, in the latter case) to make this information available to the record, but not via a private press where Gravel would be exceeding how “essential” that publication might be to the work of the Senate where the privileges afforded him in this regard were concerned. Dissenting justices felt the importance of the disclosure warranted public accessibility.
What many remember about Gravel as a Senator is that he often took on worthy causes like renaming Mount McKinley and establishing a protected area for the Denali park area, but also using it as a platform for a perceived potential conflict of interest in the form of real estate development. Gravel would swing the other way as well— he could be loyal to the interests of his constituents (for example, was in favor of abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the behest of Alaska’s indigenous population feeling the resources and administration ineffective and the outcomes were not positive for them) to a fault, but it’s only a fault if you consider those local interests clashing with the priorities of the federal government one. He was a politician, he remains committed to his principles, and while ultimately, the sort of person who succeeds in politics doesn’t deviate substantially, that he experienced so many setbacks and addressed so many challenges in pretty rational and well-reasoned fights against a monolith of interests decidedly not in the public’s interest (the Military-Industrial Complex comes to mind) is perceived as his cantankerousness and not the just outrage at the US’ commitment to human suffering, is very telling about why he, specifically, was unsuccessful in his political goals. It’s another case of the message disqualifying the medium, and learning that the latter will always matter more than (if it matters at all) the former.
Gravel wrote, “The Founders were conflicted between two beliefs: that the people were not competent to make laws, even though they simultaneously believed that the people had every right to alter governments in the future. Unfortunately, for the people to alter their government without violence requires that people have access to amending and lawmaking procedures, which were not provided for by the framers of the Constitution.”—I don’t think it should be a contestable statement, whether you like Gravel, agree with his policies, or even particularly consider yourself a progressive, that in a democracy people should be able to participate democratically, and that this is controversial, and that his nominal peers in the party over his career and through his various causes (the Pentagon Papers were, for example, entrusted to him to handle for a reason), fought so hard to prevent this—to say nothing of their opponents- is very telling about where those who were successful have driven us as a society.
Ultimately, what I think Gravel’s legacy as a politician should, at least, be primarily is that, even if they disagree with some of the substance of his ideology, the teenagers responsible for his 2020 run, and now the Gravel Institute, have become vocal presence amongst a new generation of politically engaged leftists (with a lot to learn, but the energy to push for a popular movement), and in their mission to be education and organizing focused, have solidified a commitment to solutions beyond electoralism, which enable the goals of direct democratic ideals in a way this next generation of Democrats potentially never will, and past generations of similar groups aligned ideologically potentially just didn’t have the timing for, if this cycle has proven anything about the impact of popular policy ranked next to the interests of the party elite.
I registered to vote the year I turned 18; it was 2006, Florida was having a gubernatorial election that year, my father registered me to vote, and did so as a Democrat, and why shouldn’t he? I saw no reason that I came from a long line of people I considered very strong champions of the working class, racial equality, activists, leaders of all manner. I prepared myself for the day I’d go to vote; the more I read, the more I realized I had a false choice between a Republican who wanted to give me healthcare (this was the Bush-era; the idea of getting healthcare expanded by anyone in either party was basically unheard of), and a so-called New Democrat who, in his career in the House, supported the Iraq War.
It wasn’t until months later, hearing Gravel in a debate say he was frightened by the casualness of US imperialist atrocities espoused by the other candidates on the stage in their platforms and records, a sentiment they responded to with derisive laughter, that I realize I had aged into the political reality I grew up in having few avenues for change, or evolution, or even stability towards a stronger world, only one that was hellbent on proving to the opposition that it could be just as cruel and callous. I grew up having a firm sense of what the issues people in my position faced, and was also taught, despite all evidence to the contrary seeing how the federal government would treat my family and my culture, once I could vote, I would have a say in a way my participation in organized activism hadn’t yet yielded. It was false, and as I learned, it was intended to be false.
Even the eventual nominee, Barack Obama, wouldn’t commit to righting the wrong of Iraq, even while running on ending the war, and of Obama, Gravel said, “What we’ve got to have is a law! A law, not a resolution, a law. A law that says that if you don’t get out of Iraq, what you’ve got to do is prosecute the President criminally for disobeying the law!” Gravel said, “Follow the money, and you’ll find out what you’re going to get in the way of leadership”. He said a lot of things that amounting to giving us all the tools for righting an egregious wrong from, what was basically, a judicial coup that installed George W. Bush, and the response, it turned out, was to do more of it once the office and Congress and the potential for the courts was retaken.
Turns out, the only guy who stood up for my generation on that stage, left to its own devices to either bend the knee to the system or see it for the farce and tragedy it had long become simultaneously, got mocked by Chris Matthews over a decades-old personal beef on live TV afterwards.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: