If Obama Loses
“It Would Not Be Because of Race”
While seeking to distance himself from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright last spring, Barack Obama told reporters that if he lost in his quest for the presidency, “it would not be because of race. It would be because of mistakes I made along the campaign trail".
I have no idea what’s going to happen in November. This presidential election is even more difficult to call than the last two, thanks in part to race.
Still, I can safely say that, like many of Obama’s formulations, his comment was partly true and largely false. Racial bloc voting and the well-documented reluctance of many whites to vote for a black presidential candidate – widely evident during the Democratic primaries – are obviously going to be a relevant factor in the November elections . If Obama loses to the reactionary war-mongering nut-job John McCain despite a political context that would normally strongly favor a Democrat this time around, the refusal of a significant number of white voters to support a black candidate will be a significant part of the explanation.
The Swift-(Wright-) Boating is Underway
But other factors besides “race” (racism), Obama mistakes included, will contribute to an Obama defeat if he loses. The powerful Republican right-wing attack machine is already effectively “Swift-boating” him. The “war hero” (former bomber of Vietnamese civilians) and leading Iraq “war” (imperial invasion) enthusiast John McCain and the FOX News crowd are bludgeoning Obama with the charge of being “soft” (insufficiently militaristic and imperial) on Iraq and now on Russia. With dominant U.S. media consistently following the lead of the far right by framing electability around “toughness” when it comes to “national security,” situations like the current conflict between Russia and Georgia work to leading Russia critic McCain’s distinct advantage.
Obama has done everything he can to reassure the nation’s ruling bipartisan political class that he is fully on board with the American Empire Project, but it doesn’t matter: “conservatives” continue to score points with the “patriotism” and military cards, absurdly tarring him as a “far left” opponent of American interests and security. That preposterous allegation is the central theme in the far-right crackpot Jerome Corsi’s current best-selling book “The Obama Nation” – a monument to neo-McCarthyist smear tactics in the post 9/11 era.
Corsi was the co-author of the ridiculous but important and widely read 2004 volume “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.” His latest bestselling hatchet-job is loaded with lurid innuendos and guilt-by-association narratives claiming to link the deeply conservative Obama to African radicalism, “black rage,” drugs, Reverend Wright (of course), the Communist Party, the Weathermen, Islamic “anti-Americanism” and the plot to open up Israel and the United States to nuclear attack.
Race is a critical sub-text throughout the narrative of “Swift Boat 2.0,” of course.
Corsi is making the dominant media rounds and is a featured guest on right wing talk radio around the country.
This is not really Obama’s fault, of course. The Fatherland (FOX) “News” crowd would be doing the same thing in different ways if Hillary Clinton or John Edwards (who we now know would have been dead in the water thanks to his sordid dance with Rielle Hunter) had gotten the nomination. At this stage in the corporate-totalitarian and imperial degradation of U.S. political culture, any Democratic presidential candidate (now matter how centrist and compromising) is going to be subjected to relentless charges of “leftist” weakness and questionable “Americanism” – vicious accusations that will be dutifully bounced across the dominant media’s echo-chambers and hall of mirrors.
Still, just as Edwards went into the primaries with the Rielle Hunter affair waiting to explode, Obama (no dummy) certainly made his bid with full knowledge that the “controversial” (sadly) Afro-Centric Reverend Wright (his pastor of 20-plus years) would likely emerge as a potent symbol for the Republicans’ racist, right-wing noise machine.
Overreach and Fatigue
Hubris and overreach could play a role in a hypothetical Obama defeat, with voters getting turned off by the quasi-millennial aspects of the Obama ascendancy, replete with an oration before 200,000 Germans and an acceptance speech to be delivered to 70,000 chanting Democrats in a Denver football stadium that will have to do since Mount Sinai is unavailable. You don’t have to be a Republican to think it’s more than a little over the top.
Obama fatigue could factor into a possible Obama defeat as millions of Americans get tired of seeing Obama’s face and hearing his measured baritone “eloquence” over and over and over again. We are now technically into the fifth year of the Obama phenomenon, launched during the Democratic National Convention in late July of 2004. Obama is over-exposed at this point, even as most Americans (including many of his supporters) know amazingly little about his actual public record and world view. A recent Pew poll finds that nearly half (48 percent) U.S. voters say that they “have been hearing too much about Obama lately.” Just barely more than a quarter (26 percent) of Pew’s respondents said they had heard too much about McCain.
Team Obama has recently demonstrated some remarkably controlling and prickly behavior towards the press. This could be a big mistake. If it isn’t more careful about ruffling dominant media egos, the Obama camp could do significant damage to the “Obama Love” proffered by a corporate media that retains a soft spot for the supposed “maverick” McCain. As Gabriel Sherman noted in The New Republic in late July, “Reporters are grumbling more and more that the campaign is acting like the Prom Queen. They gripe that it is ‘arrogant’ and ‘control[ling],’ and the campaign's own belief that Obama is poised to make history isn't endearing, either. The press certainly helped Obama get so far so fast; the question is, how far can he get if his campaign alienates them?” (G. Sherman, “End of the Affair: Barack Obama and the Press Break Up,” TNR, July 24, 2008. read at www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=6e9f4a42-9540-4d99-aba2-25adc276c25d)
Why Obama Deserves to Lose Iraq
The offensive notion that “the Surge” is “working” in Iraq has hurt Obama and helped McCain. But while it s true that “the Surge’s” triumphs are grossly exaggerated and that claims of U.S. “success” in Iraq ignore the fact that the Iraq War should (as Obama says) “never been launched in the first place,” Obama deserves to lose Iraq as an issue working in his favor. He has repeatedly voted funds for the criminal occupation and distanced himself from antiwar activists and from more courage politicians (e.g. Jack Murtha and Russ Feingold) on Iraq. He backed pro-war antiwar Democrats in the 2006 Congressional primaries. He has embraced the preposterous Orwellian claim that the U.S. invaded Iraq out of its excessive “good intentions” to export democracy. He has advanced the odious Orwellian notion that the U.S. is involved in a selfless effort to “put Iraq back together.” Absurdly applauding America for its great “sacrifice” in the cause of “freedom” within and beyond Iraq and enthusiastically embracing George W. Bush’s equally illegal invasion of Afghanistan, “antiwar” Obama has never come close to acknowledging the extent of the monumental damage the U.S. has done to Iraq (including more than a million Iraqi dead) during (and before) the occupation. His plans for “withdrawal” have long been nauseatingly ambiguous and maddeningly deceptive, hiding the strong likelihood that a President Obama would maintain the Iraq occupation for an indefinite period.
Obama has never exhibited the elementary courage or decency to oppose the occupation of Iraq on moral and legal grounds – as a monumental imperial crime. He has only opposed it as a “strategic blunder” and “mistake:” as a “dumb war” that isn’t “working.” This has made him vulnerable to losing the Iraq War as an issue working on his behalf once the Bush administration and dominant U.S. war media succeeded in selling the notion that the criminal invasion was finally being properly executed – the vile idea that the unmentionably criminal invasion is “working.”
Kicking Progressives in the Face
The ugly conceit with which Obama has been willing to risk alienating progressive, left-leaning voters could come back to haunt him in November. The militantly centrist corporate-sponsored Obama has irritated many of his leftmost supporters with the lurches he has made further to the right after securing the Democratic presidential nomination. Even I (a consistent left critic of Obama since his highly conservative 2004 Keynote Address) have been surprised at the speed and strength with which he has kicked his more progressive supporters in the face (and other bodily regions) by:
* embracing the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a Washington D.C ban on personal handguns and claimed that the Second Constitutional Amendment pertains to private citizens, not just organized state “militias.”
* declaring his belief in the state’s right to kill certain criminals, including child rapists.
* becoming the first major party presidential candidate to bypass the public presidential financing system and to reject accompanying spending limits (violating his earlier pledge to work through the public system and accept those limits).
* supporting a refurbished spy bill that grants retroactive immunity to telephone corporations who collaborated with the White House in electronic surveillance of American citizens (violating Obama’s earlier pledge to filibuster any surveillance legislation containing such immunity).
* appointing the corporate-friendly Wal-Mart apologist and Hamilton Project  economist Jason Furman as his economic policy director – something that stood in curious relation to his criticism (“I won’t shop there”) of Wal-Mart’s low-wage anti-union practices when speaking to labor audiences.
* increasing his declared support of “free trade,” contradicting his campaign-trail criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
* “tweaking” his claim that he would meet with Iran’s president (he added new and more restrictive conditions).
* embracing (in a speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC) Bush-McCain rhetoric on the supposed Iranian nuclear threat and promising to do “anything” to protect the nuclear occupation and apartheid state of Israel from Iran (a nation previously attacked by Israel).
* calling (in his AIPAC speech) for an “undivided” Israel-run Jerusalem despite the fact that no government on the planet (and not even the Bush administration) supports Israeli’s right to annex that UN-designated international city.
* making bolder Iraq “withdrawal” statements indicating that an Obama administration would not leave Iraq.
* vocally supporting a major part of the Republican agenda: the granting of public money to private religious organizations to provide social services.
* endorsing the conservative white male Blue Dog Democratic Congressman John Barrow (D-GA) over the progressive black female challenger Regina Thomas in a July 15 primary .
* flip-flopping on energy policy by calling for increased domestic and offshore oil drilling after it became clear that McCain was getting traction with voters by calling for such environmentally insensitive drilling.
“Dropping the Class Language”
With a large part of the citizenry supporting serious progressive change in the wake of the hard-right Cheney-Bush nightmare, Obama’s corporate-imperial centrism could end up costing him the White House. This is standard operating procedure for the Democrats, who have long been unable and/or unwilling to run in accord with the progressive and anti-imperial sentiments of the American majority .
Last time out, John “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry made the usual surrender. Given the closeness of the 2004 race and the unpopularity of the arch-plutocratic George W. Bush, Kerry could have won if he’d run further to the populist left. With help from the “liberal” New York Times (which agreed not to publish its findings on the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping until well after the election), the super-opulent windsurfing aristocrat Kerry ran to the corporate center and thereby gave us four more years of the Worst President Ever.
This great failure followed in perfect accord with Thomas Frank’s widely mentioned but commonly misunderstood book on why so many white working class Americans vote for regressive Republicans instead of following their supposed natural “pocketbook” interests by backing Democrats. Released just before Bush defeated Kerry with no small help from working class whites, Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” (New York: 2004) has generally been taken to have argued that the GOP distracts stupid “heartland” (white working-class) voters away from their real economic interests with diversionary issues like abortion, guns, and gay rights. Insofar as Democrats bear responsibility for the loss their former working class constituency, Frank is often said to have argued that this was due to their excessive liberalism on these \\and other “cultural issues”
But Frank’s argument was more complex or perhaps more simple. At the end of his book, in a passage that very few leading commentators seem to have read (a shining exception is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman), Frank clearly and (in my opinion) correctly blamed the long corporatist shift of the Democratic Party to the business-friendly right and away from honest discussion of – and opposition to – economic and class inequality for much of whatever success the GOP achieved in winning over working-class whites. As Frank noted in his final chapter:
“The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McCauliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far out-weighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and --- more important --- the money of these coveted constituencies, 'New Democrats' think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshipping country really wants to be the voice of poor people?”
“...The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talks constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up” (Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, pp. 242-245).
The corporate-sponsored, capitalism-praising Obama is repeating the same old classist Democratic mistake. For all Obama’s talk about activating the popular base to bring about “change from the bottom up,” Obama is making his own ironic contribution to the de-mobilization of the progressive electorate with a militantly centrist, neoliberal, and boring policy agenda that is noticeably bereft of populist inspiration. It’s more Goldman Sachs and Hamilton Project than lunch pail and picket line, consistent with his (actually) elitist comments to an affluent gathering of fundraisers in San Francisco prior to the April 22nd Pennsylvania primary (won decisively by Hillary Clinton with large support from white working-class voters).
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania,” Obama condescendingly said, “and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone for 25 years and there’s nothing’s to replace them...And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Later, in clarifying his comments, Obama said that poor white small town Americans simply “don’t vote on economic issues,” turning instead to things like guns, gay marriage, abortion and religion . Sounding like he accepted the standard false version (the self-serving upper-middle-class adaptation) of “the Tom Frank Kansas thesis,” he failed to note that working class whites actually vote more on the basis of economic concerns than do affluent whites  and that Democrats lose white proletarian voters by taking the workers’ material concerns “off the table” and running (unlike John Edwards’ ill-fated semi-progressive 2007-08 campaign) away from the populist language and commitments that once made the Democratic Party a relevant defender of working peoples’ material interests. (He had nothing to say about the source of the “bitterness” that leads him to cling so strongly to the guns of American Empire and to his own self-serving notions of God.)
I recently sat through a tiresome Obama “Town Hall” on “Economic Security” before hundreds of relatively unenthused supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Beyond some brief chest-pounding about Exxon-Mobil’s latest record profits and “big oil’s” campaign contributions to McCain, the content and tone of Obama’s policy presentation was positively Dukakisian. It was very University of Chicago, loaded with arcane neoliberal policy wonkery that may have countered McCain’s picture of him as an empty-headed celebrity (ala Paris Hilton) but also left much of the audience cold. It seemed almost calculated not to mobilize people for an epic confrontation with the vicious arch-plutocratic and messianic-militarist bastards behind the McCain campaign. A former John Edwards staffer who cringed through the event with me asked “where’s the red meat?” I imagined millions of formerly engaged Obama supporters forsaking politics altogether – their hopes for reform and “change” shattered and their desire to avoid politics reinstated – when and if Obama’s tepid, business- and Empire-friendly campaign goes the way of Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.
Snotty Know-it-All Middle-Class Obamaists Not Transcending Race
Which brings me to another factor that could help cost Obama the election – the elitism, ignorance, and occasional race-baiting of many of his ostensibly progressive white middle and upper-middle class supporters. So far this campaign season, I have been lectured by three white Iowa City liberal-“progressive” Obamaists on how Tom Frank’s book shows the “idiocy” of the white lower and working classes – those misguided proletarian dunderheads who foolishly “vote against their own pocketbook interests” (against those supposedly wonderful and progressive Democrats) because of childish vulnerability to “cultural issues” like “guns, God, gays, and abortion.”
“What’s the matter with these clowns” one university-affiliated forty-something white male Obamaist asked me the other day, citing Frank’s book. “Don’t they get that the Democrats are the party of the workers and the poor?”
The Obama fan who asked me this insulting question became noticeably perturbed when I noted (A) the white working-class actually “votes its pocketbook” more than the white middle and upper class and (B) that Frank’s book actually ends with the argument I quoted above, observing that the corporate-captive and excessively bourgeois Democratic Party opens the door for working class defection and apathy precisely by abandoning its commitment to working-class people’s moral-economic issues and needs. The Democrats have long been the other business wing – the “inauthentic opposition” in – the corporate-managed American “one-and-a-half party system” (Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s term) and Obama is not fundamentally challenging that terrible reality.
Affluent white Obamaist liberals display a related and disturbing tendency to argue that any criticism of their hero’s aristocratic bearing and commitments actually betray the critic’s underlying “racism.”
“You know what people really mean when they say Obama is bourgeois and elitist, don’t you?” a patronizing white male university-connected know-it-all Obamaist asked me a few weeks ago. Before I could say anything, he answered his own question: “they mean they think he’s ‘an uppity nigger.’”
Oh, okay. I’m sure there are plenty of white folks, including a large number of Republicans, who are using the charge of elitism and “haughtiness” as cover for racism. But I (the author of two books and numerous project studies and hundreds of articles against white supremacy and institutional racism) am not one of those racists. When many whites and (by the way) blacks I know say that Obama is bourgeois and elitist, they simply mean that (whatever his skin color) he’s, well, bourgeois and elitist, which (by the way) he is.
He’s also very weak, from a progressive perspective, on race, interestingly enough, part of why he has long been viewed as elitist by a significant portion of the black community in Chicago and Illinois. Having run to the right of Kucinich and even Hillary and Edwards on racial justice issues, “race-neutral” Obama has exhibited a disturbing tendency (strongly approved by arch-conservative white Republican commentators like William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will) to eagerly join the white post-Civil Rights majority in blaming blacks for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of American hierarchies.
It is interesting to hear university town white Obamaists claim that that their candidate “transcends race” while hurling reckless charges of racism at those who make the elementary observation that Obama is an elite, Harvard-educated, and Wall Street-sponsored (and excessively white-friendly) candidate running an openly (for those willing do some elementary research) corporate-imperial campaign. As the black and Left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. noted last April, the Obama campaign repeatedly contradicted its own claim to “transcend race” during the primary season. “Obama supporters have been disposed to cry foul and charge racism at nearly any criticism of him,” Reed observed, “in steadily more extravagant rhetoric.” They claimed, for example, that Hillary Clinton was expressing racial bias when she dared to criticize Obama as “inexperienced.” The attempt to portray one’s opponent as short on experience is “standard fare in political campaigns” (Reed) and goes back to the beginning of electoral politics.
Along the way, the Obama campaign has called for voters to support its candidate because of the opportunity to “make history” simply by putting someone who happens to be half-black in the White House. That is hardly going “beyond race” .
Obama recently made the false charge that the McCain campaign has been telling voters to oppose the Democratic presidential candidate because he “doesn’t look like those other presidents on the dollar bills.” The McCain camp’s opportunistic response was (naturally) over the top but, sadly, McCain was right to note that Obama had played the race card in an unfortunate way.
Obamaists should be careful with the racism charge if they want to avoid over-alienating potential supporters, who don’t generally deserve to hear snotty know-it-all pseudo-progressives screeching “Your Whiteness is Showing” (the title of an ill-advised letter from the progressive anti-racist Obama supporter Tim Wise to certain already pissed-off white female Hillary Clinton fans last June) because they happen to find the openly imperialist capitalism and Afghan Invasion enthusiast and Israeli apartheid supporter Obama hard to swallow. The Obama campaign is making a mistake by not doing more to actively discourage some of its more irritating staff and supporters – an especially good example is current “Progressive for Obama” Web site chief Carl Davidson (who has absurdly leveled the accusation at me on at least two occasions) - from recklessly charging racism.
Maybe It Isn’t About Running for President
Speaking of race, it is common to hear white middle-class Obama supporters excuse and explain their candidate’s conservative centrism as a result of the fact that’s he’s black and therefore “has to be especially careful not to offend” white voters by seeming too strident or “angry.” “John Edwards can get away with talking class struggle,” one academic Obamaist told me last fall, “because he’s white. Barack can’t because he’s black and that’s scary enough in and of itself for white voters.”
There’s a kernel of truth in this argument. Toxic white racial fears and stereotypes of the “angry black man” (e.g. Jesse Jackson Sr. and big bad Reverend Wright) are alive and well in U.S. political culture. Sadly enough, white dread of (legitimate) black anger may well help make it especially hard for a black male politician to fight for the poor and working-class Many against the rich and powerful Few. I have long suspected that Obama has felt the need to go an extra mile or three to prove his fealty (in ways that are often quite unpleasant to behold) to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines partly because he senses that his racial identity raises red flags for the nation’s predominantly white political class and electoral gatekeepers and the white majority electorate.
Still, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, the Clintons, and Gore did not need to be black in order to walk the same basic tiresome centrist line trod by “the new black Clinton” (or perhaps “the new black Carter” - see below) Barack Obama. Obama appears to be a natural and longtime neoliberal centrist, consistent with his elite private prep school and Harvard background, his “deeply conservative” temperament, his well-known personal narcissism, and his impressive corporate sponsorship.
It should be understood that the main white folks who can’t deal with “populist” rhetoric are the rich and powerful Few. Angry “class language” (Frank) works pretty well with much of the white working class majority – a main reason that any potentially viable candidate who speaks it to any significant degree (e.g. John Edwards in 2007) must be marginalized and discredited by corporate media.
“Re-establishing Confidence in the Legitimacy of the Current Political Order”
And insofar as it is true that Obama “can’t be all that progressive because he’s black” (something that may NOT be true) wouldn’t that seem to indicate that it’s, well... a mistake for progressives to advance a black candidate for president?
This might seem like a terrible thing to say (I can just see my nemesis Carl Davidson ready to pounce!), but there’s a deeper point here. Maybe the struggle against racism and other political and societal evils isn’t about running people (of any color) for the presidency – the top position in the executive committee of the American ruling class – or any other high elective office. Maybe it isn’t about U.S. electoral politics.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned down efforts to get him to run for the White House and died for his determination to authentically resist American capitalist, racist, and imperial power structures – what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated.” By the end of his life, King had concluded – correctly in my views – that only revolutionary change could save the U.S. from an ever-deepening descent into repressive authoritarianism. As King noted in the spring of 1967, liberals have for too long “labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there.” What is really required, King knew, was “a reconstruction of the entire society...a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
That is exactly what Obama is NOT about. "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Ryan Lizza recently observed, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them." Later in the same essay Lizza notes that Obama is "an incrementalist.”
As Greg Guma recently noted in a thoughtful reflection on Obama as “The New Jimmy Carter”: “the truth is that, in Obama, a worried establishment has found the vessel through which they hope to restore international and domestic stability.” As Guma darkly but rightly observes, “Obama, like Carter, can be useful [to the U.S. power elite] in calming things down and re-establishing confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order. In short, he can reinforce the argument that ‘the system’ still works”.
Revolution (desperately required) aside, even the attainment of basic reforms is about building and expanding grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the false promises of political campaigns and mass media, who market domesticated corporate candidates like they sell cars and candy. It’s about the real politics of popular organization and resistance beneath and beyond the quadrennial narrow-spectrum corporate-crafted candidate-centered election extravaganzas, whoever wins and whoever loses. As Dr. Reed noted last November, “Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to. It’s a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them” .
Given the harsh realities that make even avowedly “progressive” politicians, policymakers, and candidates veer center and right, Reed argued, correctly in my estimation, progressives should focus less on election dramas and more on building movements for democratic change from the bottom up and across and between elections:
“We need to think about politics in a different way, one that doesn’t assume that the task is to lobby the Democrats or give them good ideas, and correct their misconceptions.”
“It’s a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power” .
Reed’s point on the need to concentrate first and foremost on the building of movement capacities – NOT corporate-crafted elections that answer mainly to elite interests – is echoed in Noam Chomsky’s instructive reflections on the 2004 presidential contest. By Chomsky’s analysis on the eve of the last election:
“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.”
“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics."
“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…”
“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” .
How individual progressives define their version of the “sensible choice” is of little interest to me at this point. People write me to ask “should I vote for McKinney?” “What about Nader?” “Should I vote tactically for Obama to block Mad Bomber McCain since I live in a contested state?” “I think I’m just going to sit the election out – what do you think?”
I don’t know what people should do on Election Day. I’m not sure I care (it changes from day to day, to be honest). What I’d really like to know is when true progressive folks are interested in “struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program.”
And I am frankly haunted by the likelihood that Greg Guma is right: while McCain is obviously terrible and dangerous, Obama is attractive to a large section of the U.S. power elite because he promises to “calm things down and re-establish confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order” by “reinforce[ing] the argument that ‘the system’ still works.” Wouldn’t that seem to suggest that the loathsome and dangerous McCain is the lesser evil in the long run?
Our current corporate-totalitarian system and political culture doesn’t work. It is a grave threat to human survival and peace and justice at home and abroad. Dr. King was right forty years ago about the pressing need for “radical reconstruction” and the “radical distribution of political and economic power.” The path of that reconstruction is long and leads well past my own time on this planet, but it is at least clear to me that millions of people in the world’s most powerful nation are being dangerously hypnotized and repressively de-sublimated yet again by the false hopes and colored lights of the narrow-spectrum corporate-crafted election extravaganza.
If Obama loses, and he may, it will be important for progressively inclined citizens and activists to understand that it was corporate-imperial centrism, not the left and not the People, that got defeated. If he wins, those citizens and activists need to understand the severe limits of what triumphed and be prepared to fight and organize on a daily basis beneath and beyond presidential elections.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can be ordered at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987)
My annotation for this piece could easily run to 100 notes – something that would be impractical for reader and writer alike. Readers who want sources for assertions without notes can feel free to write me at email@example.com.
1. Obama is quoted in Glen Ford’s brilliant article, “Obama Stumbles on His Own Contradictions,” CounterPunch (April 30, 3008), read at http://www.counterpunch.org/ford04302008.html
2. Among many possible sources, see especially John Judis, “The Big Race,” The New Republic (May 28, 2008).
3. The Hamilton Group is a leading “conservative” (business-friendly) economic think tank. Furman, 37, is linked closely to Robert Rubin, the top Wall Street financial mogul and former Clinton economics advisor and Treasury secretary. Rubin's regressive views on behalf of “free trade” (including the North American Free Trade Agreement, investor’s rights, wages, welfare and “deficit reduction” gave the Clinton administration “credibility” in the halls of corporate and financial power.
4. See Leutisha Stills, “Obama Charges Rightward,” Black Agenda Report (June 25, 2008), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=674&Itemid=1
5. For an (I hope) useful summary of that progressive majority opinion and some key sources, see Paul Street, “Americans’ Progressive Opinion vs. ‘the Shadow Cast on Society by Business,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3491
6. Paul Krugman, “Clinging to a Stereotype,” New York Times, 18 April, 2008, p. A23.
7. See Larry Bartels, “Inequalities,” New York Times Magazine (April 27, 2008), p. 22. As Bartels points out, Frank exaggerated white working-class voters’ susceptibility to cultural diversion: “In recent presidential elections,” he notes, “affluent voters, who tend to be liberal on cultural matters, are about twice as likely as middle-class and poor voters to make their decisions on the basis of their cultural concerns.” In other words, working class white voters don’t especially privilege “cultural issues” (God, guns, gays, gender, and abortion) over pocketbook concerns and actually do that less than wealthier voters.
8. Adolph Reed Jr., “Obama No,” The Progressive (May 2008). For what its worth, I am told by a reliable source that Michelle Obama dismissed concerns with experience as racism during a coffee with female Democratic voters in eastern Iowa last fall.
9. Ryan Lizza, "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008); Greg Guma, “Barack Obama: The New Jimmy Carter,” ZNet (July 28, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18288 See also Larrisa MacFarquhar’s useful reflctions on Obama’s “deeply conservative” world view and commitments: see Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). Near the end of his article, Lizza proclaims that "He [Obama] is ideologically a man of the left” – a ridiculous indication of how shockingly narrow the political and ideological spectrum is in the U.S. today.
10. Adolph J. Reed Jr., “Sitting This One Out,” The Progressive (November 2007)
11. Reed, “Sitting This One Out.”
12. Noam Chomsky, “The Disconnect in American Democracy” (October 27, 2004) in Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007) pp. 99-100. See also Howard Zinn’s excellent reflections in “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).