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The fictive nature of American presidential electoral campaigns never ceases to amaze.
“Fictive,” of course, does not mean simply “false.” It’s not a word that describes some internal flaw of a discourse, but that describes a specific relation between a discourse and its audience. The difference between non-fiction and fiction is not exactly that the former is true and the latter false, but that the audience is expected to fault the former, but not the latter, for describing a world in which werewolves roam London and Russian nationalists nuke Baltimore, when they don’t. (Everybody knows it’s vampires, and they’re in Louisiana. Or is it Seattle?)
During this presidential campaign, liberals and progressives have, rightly, been busy excoriating Romney, Ryan, and the Republicans for their blatant falsity, their proclivity to make assertions and accusations that, it is easy to demonstrate, are contrary to fact. Romney is also, correctly, charged with constantly taking positions that are contrary to his own previous statements and actions. These charges can, and should, persuade those citizens whose capacity for intellectually-honest critical thought is not overwhelmed by other, captivating, non-rational identifications to reject Romney-Ryan-Republicanism as false and dishonest.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the American electorate at this point, makes political/voting judgements based not on the truth or falsity of the candidates’ positions, but on the attractiveness of the fiction in which those candidates weave themselves as characters. The reason Romney is losing this election is not because he is lying, but because he is not creating a fiction captivating enough to make his lies invisible – not because he’s talking about monsters, but because he can’t get enough of the audience to suspend their disbelief in them. His fiction comes across as pure falsity, and his storytelling as dishonesty – and not just to those liberals and conservatives who were predisposed against him.
Liberals and progressives do not like to acknowledge the obverse: that the reason Obama is winning this election is not because he is lying any less, but because “he” (meaning Team Obama) is hands-down better at crafting a captivating fiction in which his lies disappear. He has more control of his audience. For various reasons – his and his team’s intelligence, his personal charm and empathetic life story – with all but those who were predisposed against him, he does a better job of soliciting identification and suspending disbelief. His fiction comes across as sincerity. This will probably assure him a victory in November.
(Aside: Such a prediction is premised on the unfolding of this “fictive” politics within a “normal” electoral campaign. As the astute political analyst Mike Tyson points out: "Everyone has a game plan until they get smacked in the face." History is rude, and has a tendency to smack everyone around in the form of a crisis at an inconvenient moment, often one involving a lot of dead bodies and/or people scrambling into helicopters. There are quite a few sucker-punchers – Israel, Afghanistan, etc. – out there who are entirely uncaptivated by, and willing to bust up, the American electoral fiction, in unpredictable ways.)
We’ve had weeks now of liberal pundits gloating over the true-enough fact-checking, etch-a-sketching, and foot-munching of Mitt Romney. If liberals and progressives want to have any credibility, they should at least make a pass at acknowledging that there is no dishonesty in American politics surpassing that of Barack Obama. This is not just a matter of how congruent the candidate’s discourse is with facts, although that is certainly an indispensable element of such a judgement. More importantly, it is a matter of how the fiction his character inhabits is misleading as a whole, of how unreliable and mendacious is the implicit voice of its narrator, of how thoroughly it is structured in its aesthetic and political totality, to mislead.
Let’s look, for example, at an issue that bears centrally on Obama’s major claimed difference from Romney -- namely, that Obama has significantly greater concern for ordinary working people, and will therefore, presumably, enact significantly better policies on their behalf. Having proved himself more authoritarian – more dismissive of limits to his and future presidents’ war-making, surveillance, secrecy, detention, and assassination powers – than Bush, Obama really needs to portray himself to progressives as, if not exactly Robin Hood, the best, or at least the only available (it keeps getting weaker), defense against Romney’s mustache-twisting villainy. This is why his ostensibly progressive media supporters talk about nothing but Romney’s cluelessness, and disappear all those inessential issues of war, peace, civil liberties, etc.
In this regard, it is quite astounding to note that, while the campaign is presenting Obama in this way, he is at the same time pushing forward – and managing to keep invisible
– an actual policy initiative that is likely to have devastating effects on the very working people for whom his rhetoric drips with concern. Remember NAFTA, which 2008 candidate Obama promised to renegotiate because it has been so detrimental to American workers? Because, as Kevin Zeese points out
, as of 2002, it has “caused the displacement of production that supported 879,280 U.S. jobs. Most of those …high-wage positions in manufacturing industries.” Because it has also “contributed to rising income inequality, suppressed real wages for production workers, weakened workers' collective bargaining powers and ability to organize unions, and reduced fringe benefits.”
Well, the Obama administration is now in the process of creating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is, as Lori Wallach in The Nation describes it
, “NAFTA on steroids.” It is an agreement that extends to the Pacific region, and eventually to Japan and China (Mexico and Canada will join in October), an entirely new, corporate-controlled regime of investment that will effectively supersede national labor and environmental regulations. It will give “grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation [including] new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.”
The TPP will “expand the parallel legal system included in NAFTA …[which] empowers corporations to sue governments—outside their domestic court systems—over any action the corporations believe undermines their expected future profits or rights under the pact.”
Transnational corporations will have “special authority to challenge countries' laws, regulations and court decisions in international tribunals … [I]f a country has an environmental law that will cost a corporation $50 million in profits over five years, the corporation can sue to have the country pay the corporation for those lost profits. … [T]he members of the tribunal – the judges – will for the most part be corporate lawyers on temporary leave from their corporate job.[sic]”
And it is the Obama administration, through US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, which is pushing some of the worst provisions of this new agreement. Leaked documents show that it is the US that “pushed into the text aspects of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would limit Internet freedom,” that “push[ed] to expand …[the] notorious corporate tribunals,” that advocated “forbid[ding] countries from using capital controls, taxes or other macro-prudential measures to limit the destructive power of financial speculators,” and that proposed “protecting the profits of Big Pharma ... by extending patent protections which keeps [sic] drug prices artificially high.” This last provision was rejected by every other country, leaving the Obama administration as the only voice – among such progressive societies as Brunei, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam – to stand up for prioritizing profitability in healthcare. Obamacare International.
As Zeese quotes Judit Rius, the U.S. manager of Doctors Without Borders Access to Medicine Campaign: "Bush was better than Obama on this. It's pathetic, but it is what it is. The world's upside-down.” He also cites the concerns of the Sierra Club and the Electronic Freedom Foundation about the dangerous effects of this agreement.
Of course, for workers, “the TPP would give these companies even more low-wage, low-regulation countries to do business in. Americans will either have to lose their jobs, or be willing to work in horrendous conditions for little pay.…There is no question that transnational corporations will go to a country where they can pay pennies on the dollar for labor. There is no way for U.S. workers to lower their wages enough to compete...“[W]hile President Obama says he will stop outsourcing, in fact he is negotiating a treaty that will do the opposite.”
Most tellingly, the whole process of negotiating this new world corporate order is taking place under a Romulan cloak of invisibility: “[T] he public, press and Congress are locked out. Astoundingly, Senator Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate committee with official jurisdiction over TPP, has been denied access even to US proposals to the negotiations...But 600 corporate representatives serving as official US trade advisers have full access to TPP texts and a special role in negotiations.” Furthermore, “The Obama administration is expected to avoid debate, committee hearings and amendments in Congress by 'fast tracking' the legislation.“ When asked, the U.S. Trade Representative refused to commit to the normal democratic procedures of committee hearings and a full Congressional debate.
The administration of the president who promised a new era of open government has not been shy about why it considers such secrecy necessary. As The Nation notes: “Trade Representative Kirk noted that after the release of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) text in 2001, that deal could not be completed. In other words, the official in charge of the TPP says the only way to complete the deal is to keep it secret from the people who would have to live with the results.”
And the only reason we know anything about it know is because of leakers of the ilk that Obama is prosecuting relentlessly.
As Zeese sums it up:
They know that if the TPP is debated it will not become law as it only serves the interests of transnational corporations and undermines the interests of everyone else….
It is no wonder, especially during an election year, that the TPP and especially the U.S. proposals are being kept secret. The president does not want the public to know that what he is saying in the spotlight of the campaign trail is the opposite of what he is negotiating behind closed doors on behalf of his corporate donors.
Can anything be more dishonest than this?
Speaking of pathetic, The Nation points out that: “The Obama administration initially paused the talks, ostensibly to develop a new approach compatible with candidate Obama’s pledges to replace the old NAFTA-based trade model. But by late 2009, talks restarted just where Bush had left off.” So, adding injury to insult, Obama, after a slight pause to let it be known that the memory chips were to be flushed, not only blew off his commitment regarding NAFTA, he went full-steam for the supercharged, planetary “NAFTA on steroids.” Even more pathetic: This is the guy for whom, the progressives he shat upon last time are now telling us, we just must, memories clean, vote again – because, really, really, this time he’s going to protect workers. Maybe Rahm Emanuel wasn’t all wrong.
It is Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, not Mitt Romney or Bain Capital, who is cobbling together a new, infernal, eternal (the TPP has no expiration date) global outsourcing machine that will further hollow out the American economy and undermine the social security of American workers. We’re supposed to be protecting workers from the “worse evil” Romney, but can Romney do worse than to turn the US into another desperate island of the archipelago or capital?
This is a single policy issue, bearing on one of the crucial putative distinctions between the candidates, that has been rendered virtually invisible to the electorate – in order to keep the distinction from fading into invisibility itself. There a number of others, equally important.
Romney and the Republicans have the problem that they do not want to object to a policy like this in principle, from the left, and, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out
a number of times, on many crucial issues, it’s very hard to get to the right of Obama. In order to establish a rhetorical difference that probably won’t mean anything after the election anyway, Romney has to move so far to the right to that he sounds ridiculously extreme. And, however more or less “evil” he is than Obama, he is a hell of a lot less artful. (I would avoid the theological word “evil” if at all possible, but it’s part of an inescapable phrase in this context.)
But let’s watch Romney’s 47% video on MSNBC again!
It’s called misdirection, and it’s part of the artifice. The fiction of Obama as the workers’ champion cannot stand unless this crucial policy issue, which will have a bigger effect on the jobs and lives of American workers than any vote they cast for president in November, is kept invisible to those workers. Establishment “progressive” media outlets and personalities work together to keep the fiction plausible, to keep the disbelief suspended, by keeping the attention where it has to be. The fiction, no matter how dishonest, must not be seen as a lie. Again, Obama is no less, but just more artfully, dishonest than Romney.
Like it or not, it is especially incumbent on those who want to argue, to leftists and progressives, that they have some kind of ethico-political necessity to vote for him, to acknowledge this state of affairs regarding Obama. Leftists and progressives who voted for Obama in 2008 – especially those who did so because they were repelled by, and saw him as an alternative to, not only Bushy arrogance but also Clintonist corporatism – have not failed to notice that Obama turned out to be Bush and Clinton bis, a president who has managed to normalize the worst of both worlds. To pretend that this is not so, to ignore these disenchanted progressives’ well-earned disgust, is a stratagem more likely to insult them than to persuade them of the categorical political imperative to vote for the Democrat once more.
A better, shrewder, and more difficult, tactic is to confront this disgust head-on, acknowledge its legitimacy, and try to work your way back to the desired political imperative from there. A friend of mine, Tom Gallagher, has provided an excellent example of this in his aptly titled article: “Vote for the War Criminal – It’s Important!
” We’ll take a look at the problems of such a rhetorical and logical maneuver in a later post. For now, let’s just say that, no matter how shrewd, such an argument gets diminishingly persuasive, and much less worthy of exclamation, when one starts adding “Outsourcer” and other damning-but-accurate descriptors to the name of the candidate for whom it is so important to vote.
Finally, to raise considerations I’ll take up in a later post discussing what progressives should do in this election, any argument that we must vote for the Democrat, based (as virtually all are) on an imperative to do the “lesser evil” or “minimize the harm,” becomes not much of an argument at all if the terms of the question are changed to ask, not who is the “lesser,” but who is the more artful, and therefore (as Glen Ford so cogently puts it
), the more effective