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  • Ken Ilgunas

Figuring out my political ideology

UPDATE: David, over at his “Into the Woods” blog, has a reaction to my post, which you can read here.


In October of 2008 I moved into my friend’s basement in Denver. I moved there to make a little money before I went to Duke, but also to—I hoped—help Obama become our next president.

So I became a canvasser.

My job was to go door-to-door in the Denver suburbs. For the homeowners who were “on the fence,” we were trained to tell them about how Obama would create jobs, save the environment, and solve the energy crisis, among other promises we all wanted to believe were true.

I only lasted two days. I couldn’t stand the job. I hated bothering people; hated rousing them from dinner tables, hated interrupting phone conversations. They all had this “Oh, not again…” look on their faces when they saw me—the sort of look I’d normally reserve for Jehovah’s Witnesses or bums begging for change.

I only found one person “on the fence,” but I was too sheepish to thrust my opinions on a complete stranger. Walking down his porch steps, I think I said something like “maybe it’s time for a change, ya know,” hoping that he’d catch my drift and cast the tie-breaking vote that would turn Colorado blue.

While I wasn’t a canvasser anymore, I was as passionate as ever about Obama. My friend Josh and I hosted a party on election night. There were balloons and streamers. I painted my chest blue and made an elaborate chart to keep track of Senate seats.

During Obama’s acceptance speech, the camera panned over the audience. Everyone was crying. Jesse Jackson was crying. Oprah was crying. I might have been trying to hide some sorta allergic reaction going on in my eye. It was glorious.

In a moment of half-drunken, half-naked impetuousness, Josh and I sprinted through suburban Denver around midnight, victoriously hoisting “Elect Mark Udall” banners that we’d appropriated from neighbors’ yards.

Having read his books, listened to his speeches, and attended his rallies, I really did think that Obama might be the answer; that he really would “change” things for good.


Three years have passed and you don’t need me to tell you that things haven’t gotten much better. We still have an embarrassing disparity of wealth, millions of Americans without access to affordable health care, pointless wars, a warming climate, yadda yadda yadda.

And while I realize Obama has had to deal with the filibuster, Republican majorities, special interests, and everything that stands in the way of creating a better world, I’m still disappointed with the guy.

Here’s a guy who got elected because he was so skilled with rhetoric, with storytelling, with symbols, but stopped using all of the above the moment he moved into the White House. He’d presented himself to voters as an anti-establishment hero—the incorruptible Luke Skywalker—a man full of morals and mettle who’d rebel against the Darth Vaders of the world, fighting them to the death, no matter the odds. But this narrative ended the day he got elected. He negotiated. He compromised. He made deals. He started governing, but stopped leading.

I still have a sneaking suspicion that the guy is good deep down; that there’s a real progressive in there somewhere; that he really wants to be a transformative Lincoln-like leader. But whatever hope I’d once felt is gone. He can still give a helluva speech, but his words have become hollow to me, his message, empty. When I hear him speak, I am like a cuckold with his fingers in his ears, and he, the adulterous lover, whose promises I secretly wish to believe.

Why couldn’t he have taken a stand on something? Why couldn’t he have gone down swinging on an issue? I wouldn’t have cared if he’d have “lost.” I wouldn’t have cared if the initiative-of-the-day had been struck down. Just show me some backbone for God’s sake! Show me you still have ideals. Show me that you’re willing to risk great failure to achieve great success.

To quote the movie Braveheart: “Men don’t follow titles. They follow courage.” Yet it seems he’s obsessed with seeming nice; with seeming competent. But this world doesn’t need nice and competent; it needs radical and revolutionary. It needs courage.


So maybe Obama isn’t the guy to lead us to the promise land… But who is? Or better yet: What political party or ideological group is?

In order to support a group or movement, we have to be able to envision a better world. We have to see our own little utopia. And with that utopia in mind, we give our support to certain groups or parties that will hopefully get us there.

Honestly, there isn’t a political party I identify with. There’s not one group that represents my views or wants to take the country in a direction I want it to go in.

Here’s why:


For starters, I respect and agree with a lot of what libertarians believe. I, too, believe that people might be happier if they were more dependent on more natural social safety nets—like families and communities—and less on the programs of a big, faceless government. But their obsession with private property and free markets is just, well, kinda cultish and creepy, not to mention out of touch with reality.

And while I appreciate some of the benefits of a free market, I don’t see the need to worship it as if it were an infallible, do-gooding god, especially when our country is everywhere tiger-striped with the smelly skidmarks of capitalism: the inky oceans, the smoggy skies, the flaming hydrofracked water faucets.


It’s hard not to like the idea of universal education, universal health care, a vast publically-owned park system, or a government-run oil industry, not to mention economic and social equality… Yet I just can’t bring myself to wholeheartedly embrace a society that’s so governmental, so manipulated by an amorphous blob of bureaucracy that decides everything from what schools we attend, to what jobs are available, to what old folks’ homes we die in.

I guess my utopia is too individualistic, too farm-on-the-prairie, too cabin-in-the-woods for me to identify as a socialist. Having lived up in Alaska, I’ve seen how much good there is in community-based, rather than government-based, social structures.

But hoping to go back to some idyllic agrarian way of life with seven billion people on the planet is unrealistic. And while part of me wants to support the sort of libertarian initiatives that would reduce the influence of big amorphous blobs on our lives, I end up realizing that the world I wish we’d build is no more real than the forts I’d make out of bed sheets and upended couches as a boy. So, despite my dreams of rugged individualism, I can’t help but wave away the figments of my fantasies and determine that it’s probably just best to vote for the most empathetic, left-leaning politician available.

Capitalism: Republicans and Democrats

I don’t even know where to begin with Republicans. Between the adoration for big business, their lust for war, their revulsion for equal rights, their denials of manmade climate change, and their belief that man coexisted with the dinosaurs, it’s hard for me to believe I’m part of the same species, let alone citizenry, as a whole third of America.

While I tend to side with Democrats, I don’t think either party is pushing us in the direction we need to be pushed. And while Democrats have at least a couple of redeeming qualities, they, like the Republicans, still seem to accept consumer-capitalism as the end-all, be-all of economic systems. Grow, grow, grow. Spend, spend, spend. Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. This is the two-party way. Even far left liberals like Paul Krugman think that American citizens should spend to keep the economy growing, prospering, stimulating.

For all I know, he might be right. To get back to the way things were, and the way things were going, perhaps we really do need to stop saving and start spending to “stimulate the economy.” Maybe; but I guess I don’t want to live in a country and take part in an economy where frugality, prudence, restraint, and saving are looked down upon, and where buying the latest cheap configuration of plastic crap is somehow a virtuous act.

The Occupy Movement and a Third Party

I guess if I could make a party it would be the “Sustainability Party,” or the “Zero-Growth Party,” or the “Amish Party”—some party that shall address the most important, pressing, civilization-ending issues that most all of these other groups sweep under the rug.

I think that maybe the best thing that could come out of the Occupation Movement is a viable third party. Maybe the country’s not ready to accept the Amish way of life, but a group of anti-corporate, pro-people leaders that could, at worst, influence the greater political discussion and, at best, actually represent real people, would do a lot of good. (Personally, I’d rather the Occupiers storm the Capitol with a list of demands, but this will do, too.)

Zuccotti has been cleared out and there are murmurings the movement is coming to an end. But getting kicked out of Zuccotti should mean very little. It was inevitable. Besides, movements of the past didn’t need to continuously occupy space. And if their eviction is the end of the movement, then, well, the movement simply wasn’t meant to be.

I support the movement and hope it keeps going because the occupiers remind me I’m not alone. None of us have parties to vote for or leaders to follow. If our problems could be solved by simply voting for the right guy or gal, there’d be no reason to march downs streets and occupy places.

If McCain was in office, I’d wager that there’d be far fewer occupations, protesters, demonstrations, if any. Not because things would be better (as I think they’d be far worse), but because we’d still have hope that “our guy”—someone like Obama in a future election—would swoop down and save the day.

So it’s funny how it took actually getting our guy in office to make us lose hope with our government, with our democracy, with him. We tried to get “change” with votes, not knowing, quite yet, that it would take demands.


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