The Primaries: Mapping the Terrain
Paul Street is an activist and author whose works include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, and Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the Republican primary race.
The Republican front runner Mitt Romney is portrayed in the media as a "moderate republican" - is that an accurate term? And what is your view of his policy platform, how would a Romney administration differ from that of the present incumbent?
It’s a little hard to know what Mitt Romney really is. “Moderate Republicans” have pretty much passed from the scene. There’s a new book out about what happened to them by historian Geoffrey Kabaservice: Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Romney’s record as a governor was moderate, but he was in the liberal state of Massachusetts. Now he’s going for the top job at the head of what is a very right wing messianic-militarist party that seeks nothing less than complete destruction of the last remnants of the liberal state. He “ha[s] to run as far to the right as possible to have any chance of success in the 2012 G.O.P. primaries” (Kabaservice). He has to turn his back on his own record in Massachusetts (and on that of his father, the former moderate Republican governor of Michigan, who ran against the right wing proto-Tea Partier Republican Barry Goldwater for the GO.P. presidential nomination in 1964 and against Richard Nixon in 1968). He accuses the president of “not believing in opportunity and free enterprise,” of wanting to “turn America into a European welfare state,” of “apologizing for America” and “appeasing our enemies”. Just glancing at a Republican presidential debate the other night, I noticed that Romney was arguing well to the Nativist and “Tea Party” right of the neo-conservative icon Newt Gingrich on the immigration issue. Romney has reversed his earlier pro-choice position and become “pro-life” (anti-abortion rights) to win “conservative” votes in the nomination fight. I wouldn’t pay all that much attention to his official policy platform right now. He’ll take whatever position he feels he needs to win the nomination and that has meant running well to the right in the primaries. Once he has the nomination sewed up perhaps we’ll see more moderation. Then perhaps he’ll have to tack back to the center so as not to scare off Independents and moderates in the general election. I guess we’ll only find whether he’s really a “moderate Republican” anymore once he gets in the oval office, if he can pull that off.
How different he would be from Obama as president is hard to say. The Democrats with Obama (and before him Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter) in the lead have moved well to the corporate right in the neoliberal era. The deeply conservative Obama, like Clinton, seems himself to be pretty much of an Eisenhower Republican at best, so its hard to know just exactly how much of a difference it would make in policy terms for Romney to win – especially if a President Romney actually wanted to govern as a “moderate” after having to run for the nomination as a rabid right-winger. With Romney in the White House, we would probably see somewhat more severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, somewhat less stringent environmental regulations somewhat more reduced health care coverage, less defense of reproductive rights for women, weaker enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, and an even more reactionary Supreme Court. How much worse Romney would be in these and other ways is pretty hard to gage.
Let’s be clear. The current president is an imperial killer and an executioner of civil liberties. I agree fully with the recent comments from John Pilger in a passage that merits lengthy quotation and sober reflection:
Into shards of fucking dust go all the lives blown there by Barack Obama, the Hopey Changey of western violence. Whenever one of Obama’s drones wipes out an entire family in a faraway tribal region of Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, the American controllers in front of their computer-game screens type in “Bugsplat”. Obama likes drones and has joked about them with journalists. One of his first actions as president was to order a wave of Predator drone attacks on Pakistan that killed 74 people. He has since killed thousands, mostly civilians; drones fire Hellfire missiles that suck the air out of the lungs of children and leave body parts festooned across scrubland.
….as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg had predicted, a military coup was taking place in Washington, and Obama was their man. Having seduced the anti-war movement into virtual silence, he has given America’s corrupt military officer class unprecedented powers of state and engagement. These include the prospect of wars in Africa and opportunities for provocations against China, America’s largest creditor and new “enemy” in Asia. Under Obama, the old source of official paranoia Russia, has been encircled with ballistic missiles and the Russian opposition infiltrated. Military and CIA assassination teams have been assigned to 120 countries; long planned attacks on Syria and Iran beckon a world war. Israel, the exemplar of US violence and lawlessness by proxy, has just received its annual pocket money of $3bn together with Obama’s permission to steal more Palestinian land.
Obama’s most “historic” achievement is to bring the war on democracy home to America. On New Year’s Eve, he signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a law that grants the Pentagon the legal right to kidnap both foreigners and US citizens and indefinitely detain, interrogate and torture, or even kill them. They need only “associate” with those “belligerent” to the United States. There will be no protection of law, no trial, no legal representation. This is the first explicit legislation to abolish habeus corpus (the right to due process of law) and effectively repeal the Bill of Rights…
On 5 January, in an extraordinary speech at the Pentagon, Obama said the military would not only be ready to “secure territory and populations” overseas but to fight in the “homeland” and provide “support to the civil authorities”. In other words, US troops will be deployed on the streets of American cities when the inevitable civil unrest takes hold.
Still, I think it would be best to get Obama back for a second term for two reasons. First, the intensity of the corporate and social-conservative assault on the U.S. populace will probably be somewhat less severe under Obama than under Romney. Second and more important is my main point: the presence of a Republican in the White House will just encourage progressives and others to blame everything wrong in America on the Republicans. I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election because I thought there was radical potential in U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing the interrelated dictatorships of money and empire under a Democratic administration. I wanted Americans (young ones above all) to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their expectations of Hope and Change and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rule with Democrats at the nominal helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected to the reality that (to paraphrase the excellent American Marxist commentator Doug Henwood) "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top political offices – that the basic underlying institutional realities of capitalist and imperial rule stay the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it a while back, "I'm glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation….. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”
Henwood has been born out by the rise of the Occupy Movement, which fed heavily off a youthful disillusionment with Obama – a bursting of “hope” bubbles that fed disillusionment with the underlying system. Obama has been a great lesson in the wisdom of something that the great American radical historian Howard Zinn used to say: “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” The Occupy activists came to significantly reject what Zinn described in March 2008 as the “election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left” (with special intensity in the year of Obama’s ascendancy). By Zinn’s reckoning, the narrow-spectrum “two-party” election spectacles that the rich and imperial masters stage for the masses every four years needed to be understood (by serious progressives) as a relatively minor part of the deeper and more fundamental struggle for a real peoples’ politics:
The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
Now, if you want people to get it that the real problem is the system, not one of the two dominant parties, I think it’s better to have the “leftmost” wing of the corporate-managed pseudo-democracy’s one-and-a-half party system in the White House.
What effect has the tea party had on the republican race? Is the tea party likely to see one of its preferred candidates win the nomination?
Please bear in mind that there has never really been any coherent and consistent entity that deserves to be called “the Tea Party.” My co-author Tony DiMaggio and I found that the Tea Party phenomenon amounted largely to a loose and heavily media-inflated conglomeration of partisan interest groups that was organized from the top down by right wing business and Republican elites (pretty much in line with and on the model of the Goldwater movement) and set above all on returning the Republican Party to power. “The Tea Party” (or whatever we want to call the components that make up the Tea Party phenomenon) seems to have faded significantly from its high water mark of November 2010, when it was a major force in helping the G.O.P. re-brand and sweep to victory in the mid-term elections. The “movement’s” popularity declined significantly last year, thanks in part to the widespread perception that it caused the (very unpopular) debt-ceiling crisis of July and August and perhaps also because of the terrible (and unpopular) assaults on public sector workers that newly elected Tea Party Republican governors like Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and John Kasich (Ohio) undertook in February and March. Tea Party Republicans dug their grave a little deeper last month with their position on the payroll tax. At the time of the 2010 mid-terms, 27 percent of Americans said they agreed with the “movement” and 22 percent disagreed. Those numbers are now flipped. Still, the right wing has outsized influence in the primaries and “the Tea Party” has certainly helped push the Republicans’ 2012 candidates somewhat further to the “free market” and social conservative right than they might have gone otherwise.
Tea Partiers bitch and moan about “establishment” Romney from “liberal Massachusetts,” but they have failed to float a viable arch-conservative candidate. They’ve been too stupid, vicious and jealous to unite around a single candidate of “our own.” Their serial presidential favorites have crashed and burned. The bizarre proto-fascist media celebrity Sarah Palin never ran. The evangelical zealot Michelle Bachman started out strong in Iowa and then got displaced overnight by the big Texas Tea money of Rick Perry, who disgraced himself in public debates and speeches. Then Tea Party favorite Herman Cain imploded in sexual scandal. All of them have come off as ridiculous on numerous levels. The gay-hating arch-conservative militarist Rick Santorum is the last hope and I doubt that he’s viable much past South Carolina. That leaves Gingrich (who may well win the South Carolina primary today – I am writing these answers on Saturday, January 21st) and Ron Paul as the last “anti-Romney” hope for the really obnoxious right wing Republicans (which is all Tea Partiers are at the end of the day) and neither of those (Paul especially) is a viable general election candidate …or a Tea Partier, really. Romney should end up being “the Tea Party’s” last and only chance to get rid of the man they see as the devil incarnate (and who they absurdly call a socialist): Barack Obama. For what its worth, I expect (on the basis of what I have learned about the highly partisan and super-Republican nature of the Tea Party phenomenon) the Tea Partiers to turn out heavily and energetically for Romney or whoever the Republicans run against Obama.
Glenn Greenwald has argued that Ron Paul's presence in the race is positive in that it allows positions that are rejected by both Obama and the Republican candidates to receive an airing in the media. What do you make of Greenwald's view and what is your opinion of Paul's foreign and domestic policies?
Well, the primaries do sometimes allow for some substantive issues to creep into the nation’s quadrennial corporate-crafted narrow-spectrum big money big media and candidate-centered “election extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) – those great exercises in infantilizing and marginalizing the citizenry and turning it into a managed and shepherded electorate. In 2007 and 2008, crazy John Edwards said some remarkable things about and against wealth and income inequality, about mass poverty alongside grotesque opulence for the Few. He campaigned eloquently on the desperately needed Employee Free Choice Act, which would have essentially re-legalized real union organizing in this country. The other Democratic presidential candidates had to respond to some degree.
For all his terrible and regressive positions around core domestic issues of race, gender, and class and despite his medieval defense of private property rights, Paul has been making passionate and eloquent constitutional defenses of civil liberties, which are under terrifying proto-totalitarian and bipartisan assault in the post-9/11 era. He has in the debates opposed the American mass-incarceration-ist Drug War, pointing out its racist character along the way. He has consistently denounced U.S. global war, the Pentagon system, imperial hypocrisy, the plans for war on Iran, the use of drones and other mass-murderous weapons to kill Muslim children abroad and the like. Recently, listening to one of the debates, I heard Paul face large-scale booing from the audience by daring to suggest that the U.S. follow “the Golden Rule” in its conduct abroad: “treat other countries as you would have them treat you.” Yes, don’t invade other nations and blow up their villages, families, and infrastructure and say that you are doing this in the name of democracy and freedom and anti-terrorism. Imagine!
I think it’s pathetic that a regressive capitalist like Ron Paul is the only major party presidential candidate who dares to talk honestly about such things and to oppose the implementation of a police state at home and the crimes of empire abroad. But he is the only candidate doing that and I certainly can see why Greenwald (who is antiwar and a staunch defender of civil liberties) might want to offer qualified praise for that. As Greenwald points out, Ron Paul’s liberal and progressive critics reflexively attack him in ways that prohibit any serious discussion of the many ways in which Paul is (like it or not) pointing out dangerous authoritarian and militaristic tendencies on the part of Emperor Obama.
Obama has made something of a shift to a slightly more populist tone in recent months (perhaps forced to do so by the Occupy movement) is that shift purely opportunistic? What would you expect of a second Obama administration?
More corporate and imperial policy sold as the common good. What you are hearing in terms of a “more populist tone” is just the standard cynical and, yes, opportunistic game of American politics, the essence of which was once accurately described by the late and formerly left Christopher Hitchens as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” I think the Obama campaign would be taking this populist-sounding tack even if Occupy had never happened. The game goes back a very long way, to the beginning of mass U.S. politics in the 1830s.
This isn’t really “Obama’s fault” at the end of the day. He operates in a fundamentally authoritarian and plutocratic context. It’s like this writer John Little put it on Op-Ed News the other day:
In accordance with the changes in our American way of life, I felt it important to rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution to reflect said changes.
First the old version:
"We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
And now, the current version as it applies to the USA today:
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union for the wealthy, establish tiered justice that protects the rich and punishes the poor, insure corporate tranquility, provide for the common defense of corporations, promote corporate welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the rich and their posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the rich of the United States of America.
Obama isn’t about to change any of this. He is a deeply conservative friend and agent of the nation’s longstanding centers of power in Wall Street and Washington. Anyone who doubts that is invited to read my two books with Obama in their title: Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010). They should also look at the latest magnum opus from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ron Suskind: Confidence Men: Washington, Wall Street and the Education of a President (2011). But how much would it matter, really, if Obama has some sort of magical Dickensian conversion (like Scrooge after being visited by the Christmas ghosts) to moral decency and progressive/left values in his second term? The problems are systemic and structural. Progressive and populist majority opinion never seems to matter much in the U.S., where, as John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” As Noam Chomsky observed last year, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”
It has been notable that Newt Gingrich and the other Republican candidates have attacked Romney for laying off workers and being entirely beholden to wall street - what is the significance of that?
Well we all got a nice little laugh about that on the left. The capitalist system that Republicans (and Democrats, less explicitly no less fundamentally) support is about profits for the Few, not stable jobs for the many (or for anyone really). It shows that even right wing, arch-plutocratic Republicans have to play some of the Hitchensian game whereby the aristocracy masquerades in commoner dress and elitism takes on populist affectations. To his credit, I suppose, the libertarian Paul refused to join the assault, which he rightly found as inconsistent with his attachment to unfettered property rights and the market.