The Narrow Spectrum and “The Obama Dividend”
New York Times Columnists and the Limits of Acceptable Debate on the 2008 Presidential Election
As Noam Chomsky has noted, the best way to see the narrow state-capitalist nature of the spectrum of acceptable debate in U.S. political and media culture is to examine content at the “leftmost” margins of what passes for “mainstream” opinion. It’s one thing to see and/or hear privilege-friendly coverage and commentary at the openly business-oriented Wall Street Journal, Business Week, FOX News, “conservative” talk radio or The Weekly Standard. That’s what one is told to expect in such venues.
It’s another and more revealing thing to see and/or hear such coverage and commentary in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and National “Public” Radio.
These are the more officially “liberal” and even “left” segments of dominant media, where popular interests, progressive values, and critical thinking are accorded some greater measure of respect.
Look, for example, at the opinions voiced by the regular Opinion-Editorial columnists* at the “liberal” (many on the right even call it “left-wing”) New York Times in relation to the recent election of the frankly corporate-imperial candidate Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency.
Those columnists are not monolithically liberal at all. They include two open Republicans: the neoconservative William Kristol (of the Weekly Standard) and the “moderate” David Brooks. In the middle the Times’ columnist stable includes Nicholas Kristof, globalization enthusiast Thomas Friedman, Gail Collins, and Roger Cohen. On the “left” we have the clever liberal Sunday columnist Frank Rich, left-liberal Princeton economist Paul Krugman, and left-liberal black writer and U.S. Army veteran Bob Herbert.
How have these leading pundits responded to Obama’s ascendancy? With remarkably conservative and narrowly confined safety to concentrated American power, privilege, and empire. Dominant themes in the Times’ columnists’ commentary taken as a whole include the notions that Obama’s election wonderfully re-legitimizes “American” institutions and values at home and abroad; that it shows the openness and opportunity of the U.S; that it marks a dramatic break from racism and other negative aspects of American history; that the world no longer has a good excuse not get on board with wise and benevolent U.S. “leadership;” that Obama will and/or must govern from the center; and that (with the notable exception of Herbert) meaningful change is about wise and benevolent presidents, not active citizen engagement. Left-progressive arguments on Obama's elite sponsorship, corporate connections, and conservative, state-capitalist- and power-friendly world- view and on the constricted and reactionary nature of the U.S. candidate-selection and election process are completely beyond the pale of acceptable discussion. The notion that Obama's election might be dangerously re-legitimizing dominant authoritarian domestic and imperial structures and doctrines in any way  is unthinkable on the part of Times columnists.
Still, Krugman and Herbert deserve praise for arguing that bold and progressive policy can and should be enacted in the wake of the election.
Herbert merits special for raising serious questions about poverty, economic injustice, the over-concentration of wealth and power, and the need for rank and file citizen action beyond elections.
Let’s take them one at a time, moving from right to left.
KRISTOL: “OBAMA’S NOT GOING TO BE MINDLESSLY LEFTIST”
William Kristol responded to his party’s defeat and Obama’s ascendancy with smug equanimity, crowing that the United States’ remains a “center-right country” and looking forward to the possibility of a Republican victory in 2012. While technically accurate in relation to the modes of ideological self-identification (limited to “conservative,” “moderate,” and “liberal”) mainstream pollsters use, this judgment ignores the fact that a popular American majority has long stood well to the left of both major parties on numerous key domestic and foreign policy issues, supporting things like universal national health insurance, a significant reduction in corporate power, major reductions in the military budget (to fund social programs), an end to the U.S-imperial role as “world policeman” and a rapid exit from (illegally occupied) Iraq.
Kristol applauded Obama’s selection of the conservative corporate and pro-war Democrat Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief of staff. According to Kristol, this appointment shows that “Obama’s not going to be mindlessly leftist.” But the notion that the “deeply conservative” Obama might be “leftist” at all is ridiculous neo-McCarthyism for which Kristol and other Republicans should publicly apologize. It is also part of the effort to discipline the Obama phenomenon from the right – to make sure that it stays within privilege- and empire-friendly boundaries.
BROOKS: “BREAKS FROM THE RECENT PAST IN ALMOST EVERY WAY”
David Brooks is a strange egg. He felt compelled on Election Day to refer to the blustering militarist and plutocrat John McCain (a selfish and dull-witted “make-believe maverick” who went hard right for the campaign and glorified war like no candidate in recent memory) as “one of the heroes of our time.”
Brooks exaggerated wildly when he claimed that Obama is “a man who breaks from the recent past in almost every way,” in accord with a “public demand for change” that “was total.” Obama has not broken from – in some ways he reinforces and deepens – “mainstream” politics’ attachment to corporate power, racial denial, and imperial militarism. As the center-liberal journalist Ryan Lizza noted in the bourgeois weekly The New Yorker last July, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama 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.”  Writing about Obama in the same journal last year, Larissa McFarquhar found that “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.”  My own recent study of the Obama phenomenon  is consistent with these reflections and with the following observation about Obama by the black left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr in 1996 (yes, 1996):
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.” 
When Brooks says “total change” and “breaks from the recent past in almost every way,” he is operating from within a painfully narrow moral an ideological spectrum – one that can imagine nothing acceptable left of moderate tinkering with the basic structures of the corporate state. The proudly “Hamiltonian” Brooks’ biggest point after the election has been that anything more than marginal fiddling with existing institutions by an Obama White House will “freak out” the nation’s conservative and centrist majority and disrupt the nation’s “fiscal foundation.” Never mind that the majority populace is actually left-progressive on policy issues and that a broad swath of economic opinion calls for strong progressive policy interventions (with significant deficit-spending) to attack the deepening recession and to introduce more economic fairness. .
Brooks hopes that the Obama administration “understands” it “cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept.” This is an absurd concern, He means a “left wing agenda” here, something that the militantly centrist Obama team explicitly rejects (and has from the start) even thought the populace would support much of what “mainstream” media and political culture smear as “left extremism” in the realm of policy.
Brooks claims that this was an election of “the middle,” with “no sign” of “a movement to the left” – this despite polls showing that Obama gained popularity because of his identification with policy positions identified with the left: withdrawal from Iraq, retreat from war as an instrument of policy, universal national health insurance, and a reduction of corporate and big money power on U.S. politics and society.
Brooks “dreams” of an ideal Obama administration. It would include Republicans (members of a party that most of the country repudiates and sees as hopelessly plutocratic), support reactionary “merit pay” proposals (which punish K-12 teachers for poor standardized test performances resulting from endemic and rising poverty in American communities) and “postpone contentious fights on things like card check legislation.” It would keep the blood-soaked Republican imperialist Robert Gates at the head of the “Defense” (Empire) department and put reactionaries like Ray LaHood and Diane Ravitch (a leading No Child Left Behind enthusiast) in key posts.
And what, pray tell, is “card check legislation,” you ask? It is the Employee Free Choice Act, widely supported across the country. It would re-legalize open and free labor organizing in the U.S, helping American workers push union density rates back to a civilized point (we are currently at less than 10 percent of workers represented by unions – a pre-New Deal level) (It’s in the Obama policy book but will have to be fought for tooth-and-nail over and against the opposition of Brooks-reading conservatives within the Obama administration – people like Obama’s new corporatist chief of staff Rahm Emmanual).
KRISTOF: “REBRANDING” EMPIRE WITH "THE OBAMA DIVIDEND"
Moving “left” from the Times’ openly Republican pundits, Nicholas Kristof is ecstatic over the utility of Obama’s skin color when it comes to re-legitimizing the American Empire Project abroad. U.S. imperialism may have killed more than a million Iraqis since March 2003 and more than 2 million since 1991. It may have butchered untold tens thousands in (also) illegally occupied Afghanistan. It may have been identified as the leading global threat to peace and justice by world citizens since well before 9/11, thanks to its support of reactionary regimes and regressive neoliberal policies across the planet. And Obama may have clearly aligned himself (in numerous speeches and writings for such bodies and organs as The Council on Foreign Relations and its journal Foreign Affairs) with the imperial mission, practices, and establishment that has so alienated the world for so long.
But forget all that. Kristof could never acknowledge any but a sliver of that terrible history. He is excited about how America’s election of a black president with an Islamic name makes possible the “Rebranding [of] the U.S. With Obama.” That is the actual title of one of his pre-election columns, applying the language of corporate advertising – the public relations of mass marketing – to the 2008 election.
“If this election goes as the polls suggest,” Kristof opined late last October, “we may find a path to restore some of America’s global influence – and thus to achieve some of our international objectives – in part because the world is concluding that America can, after all see, see beyond a person’s epidermis.”
This argument conflated the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s global objectives with those of the American citizenry with the use of the words “we,” “our” and “America.” And Kristof reflexively assumed that advancing “our” global agenda is inherently a good thing, reflecting the fact that neither Kristof nor his employer could ever remotely acknowledge the long and deep undertow and richly living legacy of U.S. economic and military Empire.
In one post-election column, Kristof celebrated America’s supposed glorious Cold War record of leading “the international effort to construct global institutions to promote peace and prosperity. These included the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and they served our interests. Now in the aftermath of the cold war, we need to rethink and refurbish this architecture for the next half-century or more.” Nothing there about the millions sacrificed and the ecology ruined in the name of the IMF and World Bank’s neoliberal austerity doctrines. Nothing about U.S. overthrow of numerous governments (Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973 etc.) or “America’s” support of Third World Fascist regimes across the “developing” world or about the U.S slaughter of 3 million (or more) Indochinese in the 1960s and 1970s.
As for the “aftermath of the cold war,” Kristof said nothing about how it opened with a vicious U.S. assault on Iraq (the first Gulf War) – a barbarian “turkey shoot” that Obama has explicitly praised as an example of the “reasonable” sort of foreign policy he’d like to follow. The mass murderous economic sanctions imposed by the U.S on Iraq after Dessert Storm – certainly part of what fed the bitterness that led to 9/11 – are naturally beyond honest mention or treatment by Kristof.
“The Obama Dividend”
In a column titled "The Obama Dividend," published three days after the election, Kristof celebrated the election for giving new substance to the notion of America as an equal opportunity society. "We Americans have periodically betrayed the idea of equality and opportunity," Kristof exulted, "but on Tuesday we powerfully revitalized it."
This statement failed to note the profound difference between equality and (equal) opportunity (two very different ideals).
When American capitalist elites and politicians talk about increasing equality, moreover, they only mean equality of opportunity, not equality of condition.
For the authentic historical left, by contrast, meaningful "equality" involves outcomes, not just "opportunity." It's not just about granting everyone an identical chance to become fabulously rich or miserably poor in accord with their particular combination of talent, hard work, and luck.
Radicals believe that the massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life today would be no less offensive and damaging if everyone at the top had risen to their positions from a mythical "level playing field." As Noam Chomsky noted in response to a questioner who characterized American inequality by using the metaphor of "two runners in a race: One begins at the starting line and other begins five feet from the finish line:"
"That's a good analogy, but I don't think it gets to the main point. It's true that there's nothing remotely like equality of opportunity in this country, but even if there were the system would still be intolerable. Suppose that you have two runners who start at exactly the same point, have the same sneakers, and so on. One finishes first and gets everything he wants: the other finishes second and starves to death."
The real Left (which could never hold opinion spaces at the Times) has never sought merely a more superficially equal - fair start but unequal finish - rat race.
This key point aside, Kristof's claim that the U.S. had only "periodically betrayed" its bourgeois equal-opportunity ideals is gross understatement in relation to the real, interrelated, and ongoing records of class, race, gender, and other forms of structural inequality and oppression in the U.S. The notion that shifting the skin color of the nation's chief executive 'revitalizes' equal opportunity ideas in practice is dubious to say the least - a topic to which I shall return in my discussions of Gail Collins' and Roger Cohen's election commentaries (below).
In the meantime, it should be noted that Kristof's "Obama Dividend" amounts to potentially increased U.S. global influence through the demonstration of enhanced "democracy" and "equality" (conflated with "opportunity") in the imperial homeland. Again, Kristof sees the Obama victory useful not so much in terms of actually advancing equality but because it helps the U.S, achieve its "international" - imperial - objectives. Ironically enough, Empire (which Kristof and other Times columnists cannot mention) is one of the master forces working against both democracy and equality inside the (lovely and revealing word) "homeland."
COLLINS: “A PRESIDENT THE WORLD WANTS TO FOLLOW”
Digging along in the Kristofian vein, Gail Collins followed the election by saying that Americans “can bask in the realization that there are billions of people around the planet who loathed our country last week but are now in it awe of its capacity to rise above historic fears and prejudices, that again the United States will have a president the world wants to follow.” But assuming this “optimistic” assessment is accurate (the global public relations “Obama Dividend” could fade significantly with Obama’s first serious attack on some official foreign enemy), what’s so great about the world “following” another neoliberal U.S. president? The standard underlying assumption (mandatory at the Times) is that “we” (well, our foreign policy elite and the White House) have the best interests of the world at heart. That is a supposition that most of the world has long rejected, however happy the planet understandably may be about the imminent disappearance of the dangerous cowboys George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Collins praised the election for creating a nation where “American children are going to grow up unaware that there’s anything novel in an African-American president or a woman running for the White House.” But how much does racial and/or gender reshuffling at the level of the power elite really have to do with the goal of social equality and the meaningful transcendence of racist and sexist barriers to black and female progress and equity? More than merely being different than social equality, increased ruling-class diversity can actually work against it insofar as it used to divert the populace from broader and underlying patterns of societal disparity and discrimination. To some extent, indeed, Obama’s ascendancy has reinforced widespread false white beliefs that racism no longer poses meaningful barriers to black advancement and equality. Many whites are using Obama’s success to argue that racial inequalities no longer exist (this in a period when black median household worth is equivalent to just 7 cents on the median white household dollar) or that the only reasonable explanations left for disproportionate black poverty and racial inequality anymore are strictly internal to black people, communities and culture.
Collins gave some partial praise to Republican House minority leader John Boemher for arguing that Rahm Emmanuel’s appointment was “an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington make politics more civil, and govern from the center.” According to Collins, this statement was “not all that inaccurate.” But while Boehmer was correct on the issues of “change” and “civility,” he was egregiously wrong to suggest that the in-fact militantly centrist Emmanuel is a left actor.
FRIEDMAN: “OK NOW SHOW US THE MONEY AND THE TROOPS”
The prize for election-related hyperbole on the part of Times columnists goes, of course, to Thomas Friedman. He declared the day after the election that “on Nov.4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. eastern time, the American Civil war ended, as a black man – Barack Hussein Obama – won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States…. This is what happened Tuesday night,” Friedman wrote, “and that is why we awake this morning to a different country.”
Friedman did not elaborate on exactly what he meant by the ending of “the Civil War” but the implication was fairly clear that Obama’s election marked some sort of gigantic forward march in the nation’s race relations. At the end of his Op-Ed, Friedman said that Obama’s election was about “breaking with our racial past.” The arguments just advanced in regard to Gail Collins apply to Friedman as well: a black president is one thing and societal race equity is another and the first development can actually work against the second in some ways. For many of us on the left that cannot be mentioned except in derision in “mainstream” opinion sites, of course, resolving “our racial past” requires the long-term, payment of some sort of significant reparations for two and a half centuries of black chattel slavery and a century of Jim Crow along with related and ongoing records and legacies of northern racial cleansing, apartheid, ghettoization, racially disparate mass incarceration and more.
On the day after the election, Friedman rightly argued that Obama’s election prevented the “unleash[ing of] a wave of cynicism in America that would have been deeply corrosive.” True, but this suggests U.S. political culture does not deserve rampant mass cynicism regardless of who wins narrow-spectrum candidate-centered and corporate-crafted electoral extravaganzas. Many of us on the invisible (in dominant media) Left have a different perspective.
In a subsequent column titled “Show Me the Money,” Friedman argued that people in other countries should act on their enthusiasm for Obama by offering money and troops to help the U.S. have a “decent end” to its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Friedman, “President Bush, because he was so easily demonized, made being a free-rider on the American power easy for everyone…Obama will not make it so easy.”
Never mind that it is by no means clear that Obama and his imperial foreign policy team wants to truly end the criminal occupation of Iraq or that he has consistently called for escalation of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And forget that the monumentally criminal and mass-murderous occupation of Iraq was launched over and against widespread European and global opposition and was well understood by European and other national elites to be a strictly zero-sum imperial operation carrying no positive dividend for other advanced capitalist states. “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL) was an effort to deep U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil to expand American economic, political, and military “leverage” and power vis-à-vis competing states in the world economic system. It was an effort to buy another half-century of U.S. global hegemony by putting a military boot on the Persian Gulf oil spigot . It takes no small imperial chutzpah to tell Europeans, the Japanese, and the rest of the world that they were “free-riding on American power” during the Bush years!
Another reason the “liberal” Friedman thinks the world should pony up to pay for the American Empire Project under Obama is to prevent Iran from “going nuclear.” Friedman does not mention that U.S. aggressiveness and U.S. client Israel’s considerable nuclear arsenal help drive Iran to rational nuclear self-defense or that there have long been rational and urgent proposals (rejected by U.S. policymakers) for the de-nuclearization of the entire Middle East and for the internationally regulated development of nuclear fuel there.
COHEN: “PERFECTING THE UNION”
Roger Cohen has come close to Friedman in celebrating the conservative Obama’s ascendancy and joins many of the columnists treated above in using Obama to confer dramatic renewed legitimacy on the American System and (unmentionable) Empire. In an editorial published five days before the election, Cohen went beyond Obama’s own speechwriters in the passion with which he claimed that Obama’s rise was emblematic of the United States’ supposed exceptional openness to mobility from poverty and minority status to wealth and power. “Nowhere else” but “America” could “Barack Hussein Obama rise so far and so fast,” says Cohen.
Never mind that the U.S. is the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world by far and that it is characterized by relatively (compared to other advanced capitalist states) low rates of mobility from lower to middle and upper class status (the “American Dream” of upward mobility is actually more attainable in Western Europe than in the U.S.). Or that Lula da Silva, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have risen to elected executive state office from non-elite backgrounds (from indigenous ethnicity in Morales’ case) down in the other America called Latin America And never mind that Obama was not born into poverty (he enjoyed many middle class advantages during his Hawaiian mixed-race youth) and would never have come remotely close to his current position without the critical and overwhelming approval and sponsorship of the wealthy and corporate-connected Few.
Sharing Kristol and Brooks’ aversion to supposedly evil radicalism, Cohen applauded Obama for being about “reconciliation” and for being a leader who “hones toward building change from the center.” Cohen apparently does not share populist Jim Hightower’s understanding that “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.”
After Obama won, Cohen published a column bearing the grandiose title “Perfecting the Union.” Among other miracles he attributes to the new centrist president: “Obama will invest words with meaning.”
Cohen has bought heavily into the notion that the simple act of putting a (very certain conciliatory and corporate- and Empire-vetted kind of) black person in the White house will renew America’s supposedly noble promise at home and abroad. “He [Obama] was rarely explicit about race,” Cohen wrote, “although he spoke of slavery as America’s ‘original sin.’ He did not need to be. At a time of national soul-searching, what could better symbolize a ‘more perfect union’ and the overcoming of the wounds of that original sin than the election to the White House of an African-American?”
“And what stronger emblem could be offered to the world of an American renewal startling enough to challenge the assumptions of every state on earth?”
“The other day I got an e-mail message saying simply this: Rosa Parks sat in 1955. Martin Luther King walked in 1963. Barack Obama ran in 2008. That our children might fly”
Cohen apparently has no sense of the profound moral and ideological contrasts between the left-activist-democratic-socialist-anti-imperialist Dr. King and the openly corporate-imperial-racially accommodationist Barack Obama.
RICH: “THE LEADER WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR”
The commentary of the Times liberal columnists – Rich and especially Krugman and Herbert – has been superior to that of ones treated above. It is less star-struck and more tough-minded. Still, it is hardly free of dominant ideological bias and racial blindness.
Frank Rich has spilled a lot of election-time ink defending white America from charges that it is too bigoted to vote for a black candidate. But his repeated commentaries on how U.S. Caucasians are “better than that” delete the fact that Obama attracted white votes largely by being a distinctly non-threatening sort of black candidate – one who promised not to trigger white cultural anxieties and fears by raising any serious problems related to the deep and abiding persistence of institutional racism in U.S life.
Rich is overly celebratory about the fact that most white Americans are not “easily manipulated bigots.” He ignores most whites’ persistent deep refusal – very likely reinforced by the Obama phenomenon/ascendancy – to acknowledge the depth and degree of persistent racial inequality and societal racism in America.
“Almost every assumption about America that was taken for granted by our political culture,” Rich argued on the Sunday after the election, “was proved wrong by Tuesday night.” What were these “assumptions”? That “a decisive number of white Americans wouldn’t vote for a black presidential candidate,” that Jews wouldn’t vote for a supposed (Republicans absurdly claimed) Israel- hater (Obama), that Hispanics wouldn’t vote for a black, and that young voters wouldn’t turn out.
But whose political culture assumed these things? Not mine and not that of many fellow left progressives I know. Meanwhile many of our officially unmentionable (except through derision and caricature in dominant corporate media and political culture) key “assumptions” (I would say observations) about U.S, political culture remain very much intact after the election. These include the observation that U.S. politics is run by corporate and imperial forces that filter out candidates and parties (e.g. Nader, Kucinich, McKinney, the Greens, the Socialists, etc.) who seriously question concentrated economic and political power in accord with majority U.S. progressive opinion on key issues.
Rich deserves points for criticizing the knee-jerk assumption (advanced by Kristol and Brooks) that the U.S is “a center-right nation,” but he failed to mention readily available polling data showing that most Americans support progressive-left policies .
Rich’s post-election judgment that Americans “reclaimed their country” by voting in Obama was highly premature given the disproportionate power exercised (on the Obama campaign as well as U.S. politics and policy generally) by the rich and powerful.
Finally, Rich’s statement that Obama is “the leader” American citizens have been “waiting for” elevates bourgeois politician above active citizenry in anti-democratic ways. It encourages the authoritarian cult of political and presidential personality in ways that do not accord very well with liberal progressive ideals.
KRUGMAN: “PROGRESSIVES CAN ONLY HOPE HE HAS THE NECESSARY AUDACITY”
Paul Krugman has written eloquently and intelligently in the Times about the pride he felt in America’s ability to elect a black president and against the reactionary nonsense claiming that Obama should not engage in bold, sweeping, and progressive policies like national health care and major public works. Such polices are both morally and economically necessary, Krugman rightly argues.
But Krugman falls short and to the conservative side by concluding his second post-election column with the following formulation: “In short, Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.”
Krugman deserves credit for repudiating Brooks’ pathetic neoliberal tinker-only rule, but this last statement is a little, well, pathetic and even authoritarian.
“Progressives can only hope” that Obama will be bold and progressive? Both Krugman and Rich might want to look at Howard Zinn’s monumental book A People’s History of the United States. The elite liberal columnists should review Zinn’s core lesson on how big progressive change occurs: through dedicated activism and the threat of radical reconstruction from below. As Zinn noted in The Progressive last spring:
“Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading [Democratic] Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.”
“They offer no radical change from the status quo. They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure. They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.”
“None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.” 
Krugman said something else that was disturbing from a Left perspective after the election. He claimed that "there’s something wrong with you" if you weren't "teary-eyed" about the victory of an African-American in the presidential election.
Yes, numerous other radicals and I need to be put under psychiatric care because we didn't cry over the militantly bourgeois and openly imperialist Obama's presidential selection.
After mentioning this comment near the end of two post-election articles at ZNet and Black Agenda Report, I have received a large number of private e-mails (often from people who identify themselves as black American) who express their horror and disgust this statement by Krugman .
HERBERT: “AN IRON GRIP ON THE LEVERS OF POWER”
The leftmost Times columnist this election season has been Bob Herbert. Ten days before the election, Herbert rightly bemoaned the absence of the rising number of truly disadvantaged Americans from the presidential contest. “The focus in the presidential campaign,” Herbert noted, “has been almost entirely on the struggles faced by the middle class – on families worked about their jobs, their mortgages, their retirement accounts and how to pay for college for their kids….no one is even talking about the poor”…
“…But if we are indeed caught up in the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Herbert added, “the ones who will fare the worst are those who are already poor or near poor. They are millions of them, and yet they remain essentially invisible. A step down for them is a step into destitution.”
In a perceptive Election Day column, Herbert situated rising U.S. poverty in the context of something not generally discussed on the Op-Ed pages of the Times – economic inequality and its deadly impact on democracy. “Right how,” Herbert noted, “the United States is a country in which wealth is funneled, absurdly, from the bottom to the top. The richest 1 percent of Americans now holds close to 40 percent of all the wealth in the nation and maintains an iron grip on the levers of power.”
Refusing to get overly sentimental about the likely election of the nation’s first black president on the day this column appeared, the black American columnist Herbert channeled Zinn’s point about the need for sustained popular action before and after elections. Real progress, he argued, “will require more than casting a vote in one presidential election. It will require a great deal of reflective thought and hard work by a committed citizenry…by all means, vote today. But that is just the first step toward meaningful change.”
One week after the election, Herbert even seemed to channel the insights of radical intellectuals and activists who have long noted that the masters of American Empire and Inequality advance socialism (public subsidy and protection) for the rich and capitalism (market discipline) for the poor . Writing about the recent convergence of huge taxpayer bailouts for big banks and rising poverty at the bottom, Herbert noted that:
“When the Champagne and caviar crowd is in trouble, there is no conceivable limit to the amount of taxpayer money that can be found, and found quickly.”
“But when it comes to ordinary citizens in dire situations — those being thrown out of work or forced from their homes by foreclosure or driven into bankruptcy because of illness and a lack of adequate health insurance — well, then we have to start pinching pennies. That’s when it’s time to become fiscally conservative. President Bush even vetoed a bill that would have expanded health insurance coverage for children.”
"We can find trillions for a foolish war and for pompous, self-righteous high-rollers who wrecked their companies and the economy. But what about the working poor and the young people who are being clobbered in this downturn, battered so badly that they’re all but destitute? Can we find any way to help them?”
This was the best I’ve ever seen Herbert. It probably marks the leftmost limits of acceptable discourse at the Times. You could not realistically expect Herbert to publicly acknowledge that the related disparities of wealth and power and the perverted policy priorities he eloquently laments are fundamentally rooted in the machinations of the (state-) capitalist Profits System. Nor could you ask him to seriously connect it all to that system’s military-industrial-media complex and its attachment to a permanent imperial war economy. Those sorts of essential connections are the work of radicals to whom Herbert cannot afford to be linked. He is not a Marxist or a left anarchist, of course.
Of course, nobody who is could ever dream of holding down columnist real estate for any period of time at The New York Times. The Narrow Spectrum: New York Times Columnists and the Limits of Acceptable Debate on the 2008 Presidential Election
* NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNS CONSULTED FOR THIS CORPORATE MEDIA ALERT:
William Kristol: “GOP Dog Days?” November 10, 2008
David Brooks: “A Date With Scarcity,” November 4, 2008; “Change I Can Believe In,” November 7, 2008.
Nicholas Kristof: ”Rebranding the U.S. With Obama,” October 23, 2008; “What? Me Biased?,” November 2, 2008; “Rejoin the World,” November 6, 2008; “The Obama Dividend,” November 9, 2008; “Obama and the War on Brains,” November 9, 2008.
Thomas Friedman: “Finishing Our Work,” November 5, 2008; “Show Me the Money,” November 9, 2008.
Gail Collins: “Thinking of Good Vibrations,” November 6, 2008; “A Political Manners Manual,” November 8, 2008.
Roger Cohen: “American Stories,” October 30, 2008; “Republican Blues,” November 3, 2008; “Perfecting the Union,” November 6, 2008.
Frank Rich: “In Defense of White Americans,” October 26, 2008; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” November 2, 2008; “It Still Felt Good the Morning After,” November 9, 2008.
Paul Krugman: “The Obama Agenda,” November 7, 2008; “Franklin Delano Obama,” November 10, 2008.
Bob Herbert: “Crisis on Many Fronts,” October 25, 2008; “Beyond Election Day,” November 4, 2008; “Take a Bow America,” November 8, 2008; “Beyond the Fat Cats,” November 11, 2008.
1. For such an argument see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008, order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987); and “Barack Obama: The Empire’s New Clothes,” Black Agenda Report (November 12, 2008), read: www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=879&Itemid=1
2. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008).
3. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).
4. Street, “Barack Obama and the Future.”
5. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).
6. For some instructive reflections, see David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007).
7. See Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. 67-75; Chicago Council on Foreign Relationsm “Global Views” (October 2004); Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006).
8. Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).
9. A personal aside. The last time I got teary-eyed about something political was more than five years ago. I was in a crowd of many thousands (more than 10,000 easy) protesting the onset of the Iraq War in downtown Chicago – a chanting sea of beautiful diverse humanity (Caucasians, Arab Americans, Latinos, and lots of black people, and both young and old). This was in mid-March of 2003. On the Outer Drive and on Michigan Avenue we would come across these CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses that were completely marooned by the endless river of marching citizens. And the drivers (usually black females) would smile and hold up their hands with the V-peace sign. I saw this also with an L Train on Lake Street. It wasn't stopped by people of course. but it was just stopped above the march and a Latino guy - a train operator - made the same gesture ...the peace sign. Beautiful. That's the kind of thing that brings tears to my eyes, not some increased racial diversity in the imperial ruling class.
Interestingly enough, Obama was nowhere to be seen in downtown Chicago when that march happened. He may have given his "I'm not against all wars just dumb wars" speech (opposing the planned Iraq invasion on pragmatic not principled or moral grounds) at the Daley Plaza the previous October but by this time he was on the path to the national and indeed international ruling class and he had taken his 2002 "antiwar" speech off his Web site. I was thinking about all that as Obama accepted victory in downtown Chicago on Election Night.
10. See (for one example),
10. See (for one example),