Suppose I write a column in which I try to persuade you that there's not much of a difference between bicycles and buses. In my column I take up some two thirds of the space telling you that both bikes and buses have wheels, enable people to get from one place to another, have somewhere for those using them to sit, can often be seen by pedestrians moving along city roads, and may cause injury to people when they crash into them. Moreover, the commonest names for the two vehicles begin, alike, with a 'b', and they both function better and longer if they are properly maintained. The differences between bikes and buses, on the other hand, I confine to a single sentence, saying just by the way that the effects of being crashed into by a bus are generally worse than those of being crashed into by a bike, and that buses usually have more wheels than bikes.
You might think I hadn't fairly tackled the question of how similar or different buses and bikes were. You would also have before you a model for Glenn Greenwald's column in today's Guardian on the upcoming US election. This is about the 'deceitful perception of real choice' that the two major parties seek to maintain, and it has nine paragraphs on how they don't differ and a single sentence on how they do - with even this sentence throwing in a qualification in the direction of similarity. You could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion, though Greenwald himself doesn't go that far, that there's no point in voting - a standard trope of stupid leftism, as contrasted with leftism of a more intelligent sort. Despite Greenwald's way of stacking things, there are some who think that the outcome of this election kind of matters.
But Greenwald's column is worse than the above suggests; because he also says the following:
[B]y emphasising the few issues on which there is real disagreement between the parties, the election process ends up sustaining the appearance that there is far more difference between the two parties, and far more choice for citizens, than is really offered by America's political system.
The thing to focus on there is the closing implication: far more choice for citizens than is really offered by America's political system. This is more bullshit leftism. The only choice offered by America's political system is supposedly that between Democrats and Republicans as presently constituted - as if there's a wave of popular opinion and feeling bubbling there, or surging, in support of other options, other policies, other parties, but hell, the SYSTEM just won't let it through. Why, if it's there in such strength, doesn't it organize to compete, to win majorities or at least substantial representation, to make its political way? The Occupy movement on which so many were so ready to lavish high praise - where are you? Just do it, people! I say this in full awareness of the institutional resistances within a party system to new political forces. Those are real enough. But, when all is said and done, new political formations can emerge within democratic systems and sometimes displace established parties; or they can transform the profile of the existing parties. The systems are not closed off against change.
Yet the comfortable mythology for a certain kind of leftist critic - comfortable because it gets round the difficult question of how to win support, big support, for more radical policies - is that it's the system that is blocking our choices and not the fact that socialists and others of a critical turn of mind haven't been able lately to persuade people in numbers to their own way of thinking and to the conclusion that they have a programme worth trying to implement. That is the only course: through persuasion, through democratic politics. Those who have this as a possibility should be grateful for it; not everybody does - and should stop whingeing about limited choices and try to stretch these.