John Edwards and Dominant Media's Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy
John Edwards and Dominant Media's Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy
"THE ESSENCE OF AMERICAN POLITICS"
The essence of American politics," the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens noted in his 1999 study of the
Hitchens' caustic and accurate description of the
It's an endless, viciously circular Catch-22. You can't win without with without a good chunk of the populace willing to vote for you, but you can't get your message out to the populace without support from the wealthy few and the corporate elite that controls so much of the nation's economic, cultural and political activity. And you can't attain ruling-class sponsorship if you appear to be too close (whatever your own personal class position) to the nation's working-class majority.
The populism-elitism conundrum is across the electoral board. It's written into the institutional DNA of U.S. politics. It touches every current presidential candidacy, either by shaping viable campaigns (Guliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain, Clinton II, Obama and Edwards) in conservative ways of by making openly Left campaigns (Kucinich, for example)inherently unviable.
"THE POPULIST LABEL DOESN'T FIT"
Curiously, however, dominant (corporate and "mainstream")
New York Times Magazine writer and Barack Obama enthusiast Matt Bai recently skewered Edwards for identifying "mill supervisor" as his ideal non-politician job and concluded that "the more you talk to Edwards, the more apparent it is that the populist label doesn't quite fit." Bai supports this judgment with a quote from former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich: "Rhetorically, if you're calling Edwards an economic populist, it's true he cares a lot about the poor. He evinces a lot of concern for the middle class and middle-class anxieties. But he's not in any way attacking the rich or corporations. He's not explaining one fundamental fact of modern economic life, which is that the very rich have all the money" (Bai 2007) .
Are these problems for Edwards' claim to represent the working-class majority in its struggle with the economic elite? Of course they are. As the millionaire comedian Jay Leno suggest over and over again, there should be little doubt that Edwards lives on the privileged side of the "two [rich and the non-rich] Americas" that the former North Carolina Senator talks about so much in his presidential campaign (3). Point taken.
But Edwards is hardly the only leading presidential candidate to belie populist-sounding rhetoric with elite connections, allegiances and formulations. All of the leading Republican candidates follow in Reagan's footsteps by trying to disguise their party's militantly regressive and plutocratic agenda as the politics of ordinary middle- and working-class Americans (4)
Hillary Clinton likes to sound like a grassroots union or civil rights organizer when talking to labor, minority and community activist audiences about how "everything has been skewed to help the privileged and powerful at the expense of everybody else." But her progressive claims are badly compromised by the fact that she is heavily reliant on large-scale corporate contributions and has surrounded herself with advisers "who represent some of the weightiest interests in corporate
"A bevy of current and former Hillary advisers, including her communications guru, Howard Wolfson, are linked to a prominent lobbying firm - the Glover Park Group - that has cozied up to the pharmaceutical industry and Rupert Murdoch. Her fundraiser in chief, Terry McAuliffe, has the priciest Rolodex in
"It's not exactly an advertisement for the working-class hero or a picture her campaign freely displays. Her lengthy support for the Iraq War is
Hillary savages the insurance industry (especially when talking to labor and minority audiences) for denying services and over-charging providers and patients but then makes it clear that she intends to leave the insurance companies "in control of the health care system" (Peterson 2007). It's not for nothing that she received nearly five times as much political money from the insurance industry as Edwards ($226,450 v. $46,500) during the first quarter of 2007 (Center for Responsive Politics 2007c).
Hillary's fellow "new Democrat" Barack Obama is engaged in the exact same "juggling act" as
Obama's power-worshipping campaign book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) - the book to which Obama refers reporters asking him for policy specifics behind his often vague statements - refers to the United States' rapacious, savagely unequal and fundamentally "materialist" capitalist economy as the nation's "greatest asset." The Audacity of Hope absurdly praises the "American system of social organization" and "business culture" on the grounds that
Obama's badly titled book audaciously lectures poor people on their "duty" to feel "empathy" for wealthy oppressors - including Bush and Cheney, who are "pretty much like everyone else" - and on their need to understood how well off and "free" they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America . It deletes less favorable contrasts with Western Europe and
The junior Senator from Illinois denounces the corrosive influence of private political cash on U.S. democracy while cozying up to Chicago's notoriously corrupt Big Money Mayor Richard M. Daley (with whom he shares the same high-priced campaign consultant [David Axlerod]) and raking in campaign largesse from wealthy interests, including Goldman Sachs, Exelon (leading Midwestern utility and the world's leading nuclear plant operator), Soros Fund Management, J.P Morgan Chase & Co., leading corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, Sidley Austin LLP), top Chicago investment interests (including Henry Crown & Co and Aerial Capital Management) and the like (Center for Responsive Politics 2007a).
Obama's reliance on such deep-pockets supporters helps explain why he voted for a business-driven "tort reform" bill that rolled back working peoples' ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations (Sirota 2006; Silverstein 2006). It is certainly part of why he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent (Sirota 2006). It is undoubtedly related to his vote against a bill that would have killed an amendment to the 2005 energy bill that Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste called "one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation." Under the amendment, which passed with Obama's help,
Special interest influence is certainly behind Obama's constant plugging of federally subsidized ethanol ("E-85") as an environmentally friendly "alternative fuel." The supposed "green" fuel E-85 has become "the classic pork barrel cause of every Midwestern politician" (Silverstein 2006), enticed as such politicians are by the reality or promise of campaign contributions from the legendary Illinois-based political finance player and ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland (Lewis 1996, pp. 10, 116, 118, 121-127). Whether it really contributes to positive environmental change and reduced
Reliance on corporate cash and power is likely related to Obama's opposition to the introduction of single-payer national health insurance on the curious grounds that such a welcome social-democratic change would lead to employment difficulties for workers in the private insurance industry and that "voluntary" solutions are "more consonant" with "the American character" than "government mandates." ( Klein 2006; Sirota 2006).
The last comment is fascinating. As Noam Chomsky noted last year (Chomsky 2006, p.225):
"A large majority of the [U.S.] population supports extensive government intervention [in the health care market], it appears, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 'over 2/3 of all Americans thought the government should guarantee "everyone the best and most advanced health care that technology can supply"'; a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 80 percent regard universal health care as 'more important than holding down taxes'; polls reported in Business Week found that '67 % of Americans think it is a good idea to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27 5 dissenting; the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans favor the 'U.S. government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes' (30 percent opposed). By the late 1980s, more than 70 percent of Americans 'thought health care should be a constitutional guarantee,' while 40 percent 'thought it already was'" (5).
Obama has "played up populist themes of [campaign finance] reform," trumpeting his "large number of small donations" and claiming (in the Senator's words) to be "launch[ing]a fundraising drive that isn't about dollars" (Morain 2007). But his astonishing first-quarter campaign finance haul of $25.7 million included $17.5 million from "big donors" ($1000 and up) - a sum higher than John Edwards' (Curry 2007) total take ($14 million) from all donors together (Campaign Finance Institute 2007). Obama got a combined $530,000 from leading global finance and investment firms UBS-Americas ($162,200), Goldman Sachs ($146,100), Citigroup ($56,000), Credit Suisse Securities ($47,500), Morgan Stanley ($41,850), Lehman Bros. ( $38,400) and ($37,900) Aerial Capital (Center for Responsive Politics 2007c; Morain 2007). He received more than two-thirds (68 percent) of his first quarter 2007 fundraising total "from donations of $1000 or more" (Street 2007c).
THE NARROW NEOLIBERAL SPECTRUM
Why is the media's scorn for the populist/progressive hypocrisy of top tier candidates - a hypocrisy that is written into the structural nature of the
Edwards is the only top tier Democrat to back up Dennis Kucinich's claim that single-payer government health insurance is good policy. His universal health care plan is to the left of the cheaper and milder copy-cat version proposed by Barack Obama in that it is more adequately funded (thanks to the proposed tax-cut rollback), truly universal and would compel private insurance companies to compete with government plans and could evolve into single payer.
Unlike Obama, he doesn't voice support for the vicious Clinton-Gingrich "welfare reform" (a direct neoliberal assault on the poor) or mouth transparent and unsubstantiated nonsense about the United States being a land of special upward social mobility (Street 2004; Street 2005).
Calling himself a "a real Democrat, not a 'new [corporate-neoliberal] Democrat,'" he describes the labor movement as "the greatest anti-poverty program in American history" and refuses to privilege deficit reduction over poverty reduction.
He criticizes Congressional Democrats for agreeing to fund the continued
Employing former Detroit-area labor-backed Congressman and onetime labor studies professor David Bonier as his campaign director, he is running as what the New York Times calls "a candidate of the left...filling a vacancy created as Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have campaigned from the center" (Nagoureny 2007).
As Jeff Cohen notes:
"Edwards is alone in convincingly criticizing corporate-drafted trade treaties and talking about workers' rights and the poor and higher taxes on the rich. He's the candidate who set up a university research center on poverty. Of the front-runners in presidential polls, he's pushing the hardest to withdraw from
It's not for nothing that Edwards is losing to Hillary-Obama in both the big donor dollar race and in the race for name recognition and favorable attention in dominant media. He's speaking the languages of labor, the New Deal and the (stillborn) War on Poverty to a noteworthy extent in a time when the labor movement and the notion of positive government action for egalitarian and anti-poverty ends have been officially proclaimed dead and over (drowned in the icy individualist waters of neoliberal calculation) and in a period when the issues of inequality and economic insecurity resonate with a considerable and growing section of the ever more class-fractured citizenry.
The other thing is that Edwards is a threat to win. Though you would hardly know it from dominant media coverage, he currently leads the polls in pivotal Iowa, where grassroots organization, the caucus system, a historically independent electorate and his earlier positive history there - he finished a strong second to Kerry in Iowa in 2004, picking up steam at the end with his powerful "two Americas" theme - are working to his benefit. Even with his comparative media and campaign finance challenges, he's a real threat to post early victories in
The owners and coordinators of the
Edwards, for all his social and ideological limitations (from a Left perspective), is working to place this problem and the intimately related issue of poverty in the foreground. He appears to sincerely care - and is willing to pay a campaign-finance and related public relations cost for his concern - about these issues. For this and other reasons, dominant
This says more about how right-wing that media has become than how left Edwards is but Edwards deserves credit for refusing to follow the standard chilling big-money path to corporate-neoliberal centrism. He's different and better than and actually to the left of dominant media darlings Hillary and Obama, whose susceptibility to the charge of false populism is reduced by the fact that they possess less real populist concern and commitment than Edwards.
1. Thus the New York Times reported yesterday (June 27, 2007) that "substantially more Americans ages 17 to 29 than four years ago are paying attention to the presidential race. But they appeared to be really familiar with only two of the candidates, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both Democrats" (Nagourney and Thee 2007).
2. According to Bai, Edwards added insult to injury by claiming to have "joined the hedge fund partly because he wanted to learn more about the way markets affected inequality. This," Bai notes, "is rather like saying you hired a stripper in order to better understand the exploitation of women" (Bai 2007). Bai further criticized Edwards' populist credentials by reporting that Edwards "might consider pressuring the Fed to lower interest raters in order to tighten labor markets, but he wasn't sure. Similarly, he said he was wary of raising the tax rate on capital, fearing that it would cause capital to flee the country. He sounded equally unenthused," Baid adds, "about returning to the days of steeper levies on the superrich (beyond the tax cut rollback he has proposed on those making more than $200,000), even though his official position is that he would consider them."
3. The biggest tip-off of the rather obvious fact that that Edwards is less than a full-blown left populist is his repeated claim that his great aim is to "help people have a chance to be as successful as I have been." This is Edwards' way of saying that he buys into the standard bourgeois American claim that the only acceptable form of equality to be pursue is equality of opportunity, not equality of condition (Jencks 1992). That is not the position of the historical Left, which is opposed to social inequality as such. The massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life, leftists think, would be offensive and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good even if everyone at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equally modest position on a "level playing field." There is no such field in really existing U.S. society, of course, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own 40 percent of the nation's wealth (along with a probably higher percentage of America's politicians and policymakers). Serious Left (populist, Marxist, anarchist and/or whatever) vision is about all-around class leveling before, during, and after the policy process. It's not about giving everyone an identical chance to become fabulously rich or miserably poor in accord with their particular combination of talent or hard work or lack thereof.
4. They also follow the Gipper by relentlessly citing foreign dangers to encourage mass cowering under the protective umbrella of the national security state. The Reagan administration was especially expert at pushing the foreign policy panic button to divert attention from uncomfortable plutocratic realities in the homeland.
5. Does Obama support the American scourge of racially disparate mass incarceration on the grounds that it provides work for tens of thousands of prison guards? Should the
6. Kip Peterson notes a critical problem with Edwards' plan: Edwards unfortunately so far opposes opening "the existing Medicare program, which now insures 43 millions senior and disabled people, to anyone who prefers to be insured by Medicare rather than Blue Cross Blue Shield or
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