If I took one thing away from the past two weeks of national theatrics, it was the incredible smallness of the American political imagination. We have two parties, one center-right and one far right, that differ only in degree: both are wedded to manifest falsehoods about merit and social mobility, and both are comfortable with a society that derives an enormous amount of its meaning from aggressive war. Geopolitical domination is an unquestioned good if not a God-bestowed right, and delusions of divine chosenness echo about the way they must have in medieval throne rooms. Worst of all, both are steeped in an ideology—an ironically anti-Christian one, for a nation with so much Christian pablum on its lips—of striving, of earning, of getting what one “deserves,” as if there were any coherent way of measuring such a thing. One party serves this cocktail to a motley assemblage of privileged intellectuals, ethnic minorities, and underclass strugglers; the other delivers it, in a rawer and more potent form, back to the reactionary gentry from whence it came.

If, let’s say, you were to believe in a society that is not structured around dubious notions of economic deserts and God-given rights, or one that does not dramatize external enemies and romanticize combat against them, or one that is committed to radical inclusion both domestically and internationally, you became painfully aware the past two weeks that you have virtually zero political representation in the United States, and little hope of ever having it. Even in the party that contains many who think of themselves as European-style secular intellectuals, there is an endless parade of cheers for murder and bestowals of glory on those whose children threw away their lives in meaningless battle. I’m sure John Kerry and Joe Biden think of themselves as committed secularists, but their enthusiasm for chasing infidels to the “end of the earth” shows just how primally zealous our political mainstream remains.

It’s very tempting to hold all of this in contempt, like so many radicals have done in American history. To do so is to let a natural defense mechanism do its work, to point the monster in the direction of others it might consume first. But I can’t do it; as miserable as it can be to remain engaged, it seems to me to be the only way one can be justified in hoping at all. It’s easy to be all in or all out, but difficult to acknowledge that the Obama administration, as the current incarnation of the American executive branch, is a destructive institution headed by a man who is probably as good as they come. Even if the president’s basic decency is no match for the history and structure of the government he runs, it is impossible to pretend it doesn’t matter at all. Obama vs. Romney is life and death to no small number of Americans, a reality can’t allow myself to discount no matter how slight the improvement might be.

And so we have a duty not to avert our eyes from the horror show of politics, however miniscule the ultimate import, however mistaken the president is about himself and Mitt Romney having “fundamentally different visions.” There are lives at stake in these matters, and there are men who are individually much less evil than the apparatuses they lead. But the duty is paradoxical: not just to participate, but to critique, to proclaim the deep inadequacy of our candidate and of our country’s political thinking so that participation cannot be mistaken for consent. I will vote in November out of humanitarian concern, not out of support for Obama or the American political system. But the much more important project is to imagine and describe how much better it could be.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to Notes from the Margins of Convention

  1. Malte says:

    YES. Thank you so much. I’m British, but our situation is much the same – both parties committed to imperial aggression and an anti-working class ideology of “meritocracy” at home.

    Thankfully, however, there is a lot of good we can do in the extra-parliamentary sphere – community organising, activist groups, trade unions, etc.

  2. Ryan says:

    This gives language to many thoughts from the past months. Thanks.

  3. Tonia says:

    Did you even watch the RNC? I thought you were at tennis matches.

    I agree with you though, that the left offers no real alternative to the right on matters of bloody war. Even the social issues that Obama now champions, he was eerily silent until the canary in the coalmine told him it was OK to advance, three years into his presidency.

    I wish you’d come to these conclusions as early as the rest of us, however, and that this publication hadn’t been an all out cheering section for Obama’s letdown policies. Better late than never.

  4. Mark Perkins says:

    As I wrote elsewhere:

    “…one center-right and one far right.” That description makes a limited kind of sense but itself displays the “incredible smallness of the American [read: Western] political imagination.” That failure of imagination would not be qualitatively better if we simply added a real leftist party into the spectrum.

    And if we *were* to talk about a left-to-right spectrum, as impoverished a way of thinking as that is, my problem wouldn’t so much be with the Dems being “center-right” (in many ways they are… in others not so much… but of course who gets to define the center? I suspect, David, that you’re pegging the center as between you and the Republicans, which is no less arbitrary than placing the center between the Dems and Repubs). Instead, I’d object to the Republicans being considered “far-right.” Is a party deeply in love with technology, progress, statist capitalism, liberal democracy, and militaristic imperialism really right-wing? Well. It depends on what you mean.

  5. CK MacLeod says:

    committed to radical inclusion both domestically and internationally

    A utopian principle of the total dissolution not just of the nation-state but of politics itself – irrelevance itself, except and unless discovered within the prior principle of the sacrificial community: The author is forced to divide his mind between self-gratifyingly totalized verbal gestures and an incremental “humanitarian” return to the real that is little different from anyone else’s relation to conventional politics: sacred imagination, banal adulthood.

  6. Scott says:

    I’d be very interested in your concept of “good” in this writing. That is, what do you mean that Obama is “probably as good as they come?” What reasoning do you have for that? That he’s willing to take money that isn’t his and give it to people in return (ostensibly) for votes? Isn’t that what Romney proposes to do, excepting that the people that Obama wants to give this money to don’t have much money to begin with?

    This is what politics in the U.S. is. Each group wants to take money from certain people and give it to other people in exchange for votes and/or money in return. How is this, in ANY way, good? Because you agree that a certain group is taking from the right people and giving to the right people? Because I’m pretty sure that Obama has taken much from the middle class and given much to Wall Street. Is this all ignored because he created a health-care bill that he then exempted all of his friends and supporters from? This is “goodness?” Please.

  7. […] Zeal Posted at 2:30 on September 10, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan David Sessions holds that the real lesson of the last two weeks was “the incredible smallness of the American […]

    • Krystyna says:

      While there is something attrtcaive about the strategy that Alex suggests, here are two possible issues with this strategy:1) Just touting the benefit of being large ignores the downsides of a large university. Thus, an even better recruitment strategy for a large university might be to offer student the best of both worlds: enjoying the social benefits of being in a relatively intimate setting in a modestly sized college or institute, while still having access to the broad opportunities that a multiversity provides. This is the rationale for the college systems that some large universities have, though maintaining robust colleges has often proved difficult in the face of the centralizing forces that exist in most large universities.2) Emphasizing the choices available at mid-sized comprehensive universities might increase their vulnerability to competition from the largest universities. If intra-institution choice is the deciding factor in a student’s selection of a university, why not choose the largest ones that offer the most choices?

  8. […] Sessions holds that the real lesson of the last two weeks was “the incredible smallness of the American […]

  9. Jeff says:

    I agree with everything in this post, except I think you can make a stronger case for engagement than “humanitarian.” The progressive project is long-term, and we don’t control where in that long history we find ourselves. If we were having this discussion a century and a half ago, for instance, it would be easy to talk about how little there really was to choose between Lincoln’s and Douglass’s positions, both of which accepted the existence of slavery in large parts of the US. A century ago, we’d have been depressed over the choice between Taft, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, none of whom was pledged to abolish the glaring evils of the time: antisemitism, the entrenchment of Jim Crow, women’s inequality, the warmongering of the European nations as they competed for empire and geared up for world war, etc. But there were, back then, nonetheless important steps to be taken in the coming years and decades, and because they (eventually) were taken — because women got the vote, racism and antisemitism were discredited, the Hague and Geneva conventions put some limits on war, the old Great Powers gave up their empires, settled down and formed the EU, and so forth — we’re better positioned for further progress today than we would have been otherwise.

    The reformist efforts I’m describing are always very unsatisfying at the time; there are many defeats along the way, and it’s often a case of three-steps-forward-two-steps-back. But we’re given the historical situation we’re given and have to work from there. I think the future is one in which the evils mentioned in this post — the primitive faith in violence and the maddening, incoherent notions of what people deserve — will largely be recognized and abandoned, left on the same scrap heap of history as slavery and the rest. The goal at any given moment, though, is to preserve and consolidate the gains of the past against the endless reactionary pressures to undo them, and to push for the next, admittedly small measures that will continue the forward movement and create the space for bigger and better things later on. The longer-term vision doesn’t compete with the current “horror show,” but instead should move one to greater interest in it.

  10. Jeff says:

    Whoops, make that “Douglas,” not “Douglass.” Kind of an important distinction there. 🙂

  11. Patrick Sawyer says:


    Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

  12. Kevin says:

    Hey John! . Are you serious about hainvg a coffee soiree onNew Years Eve??If so, let me know what I can do to help?Maybe we could make it a Coffee Progressive ..?We’ll start at my house with Italian pastries,andCaffe Correcto (espresso enhance with a splash of Frangelico) and of course, we’ll have to dance tosome Latin dancing (Cesare Evoria or Maria DosPassos) I’ll help with whatever I can ..Ruben

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