On the Elections Tomorrow and Politics More Broadly

I’ve been getting a number of e-mail messages pretty much along the following lines: “Dear Paul Street, you intrepid Left political analyst you, I live in a Super Tuesday Primary state and I just don’t know what to do tomorrow.  I know you follow along with Glen Ford and other writers over at Black Agenda Report in describing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as corporate-neoliberal and imperial-militarist look-alikes.  I know you describe yourself as left of Kucinich but that you and some other hard left writers and activists made some interesting and cogent arguments about why John Edwards’ more ‘populist’ (if ultimately bourgeois) campaign was worth supporting (without radical illusion) in the primaries.  Well, Edwards has already dropped out and Kucinich is long gone. I’m not a Republican, and for better or worse I insist on voting in the primary tomorrow. What should I do?”


“Solidarity, “


“Left wing Voter Stuck in the United States’ Quadrennial Corporate-crafted Narrow Spectrum Winner Take All Election System and Political Culture.”


Here’s my answer.  I’m afraid it’s not much help in the short term.


Dear troubled political soul,


I am deeply suspicious of the U.S. electoral process for all of the usual radical-progressive reasons.  With even Edwards (who wasn’t all that radical) now booted out by dominant media and money, I honestly don’t know what to tell you about who is better – Hillary or Barack.  They are both very bad in my honest opinion – at least they are both very bad from a seriously Left perspective. You have accurately characterized my opinion of both of them. They are centrist ideological twins of yes the corporate-neoliberal variety. It’s sad that many people who call themselves progressives don’t know that this is true or perhaps what these terms mean, but let’s face it – most Americans are really misinformed and otherwise ill-equipped to make critical distinctions and informed political decisions.  That (among many other things) makes it very hard to have a functioning democratic political culture in this country.


Through various writings and speaking appearances and so forth,  I’ve tried to educate people about the deeply conservative limits of Hillary and Barack’s supposed great progressivism.  It  doesn’t seem to make all that much difference or register very well with people.  A lot of Americans, including many who call themselves liberals, progressives and “left,” just don’t make voting or other political decisions based on rational calculations, to be perfectly honest.  A lot of what they do has to do with who they’ve been led (by political mass-marketers and their funders) to “like” and/or “identify” with in an often trivialized and commodified, product-identification sort of way. It’s all very childish and that’s by (corporate) design.


In terms of what to do, let me give you some thoughts on tomorrow (Super Tuesday) and then some thoughts beyond that. 


On Hillary v. Obama, maybe it should come down to whether you care more about domestic or foreign policy. Let me explain; it’s a little strange. They’re both pretty bad on foreign policy for all the reasons that I and others on the left have written about ad nauseam.  But Hillary’s worse.  She still continues to defend and lie about her decision to authorize Bush’s criminal Iraq invasion in advance – an authorization Obama can credibly claim to have opposed (though on very different terms than the peace movement) while serving as a state senator in Illinois (he became essentially identical to Hillary on Iraq once he was running for the U.S. Senate and the White House).  She also voted for the vile Kyle-Lieberman Senate resolution (the one that absurdly designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as an “international terrorist organization”), thereby giving –George W. Bush prior approval to attack Iran.  Obama joined Edwards in harshly criticizing Clinton’s hawkish Kyle-Lieberman vote. 


Don’t get me wrong: Obama has made it abundantly and audaciously clear that he is an American militarist and U.S. world-supremacist.  Still, Hillary is a bigger and more dangerous War Hawk.  


When you turn to domestic policy and politics, again they’re both pretty bad.  But here Hillary may actually have the edge (within an admittedly narrow spectrum of difference) believe it or not.  You don’t see her following Obama by campaigning with gay-bashing fundamentalist preachers or talking up her love for "working across the aisle" to “get things done” with…. Republicans, most of whom have become messianic-militarist, arch-plutocratic, culturally deadly, super-authoritarian nut-jobs.  Hillary’s gotten more support from organized labor, which doesn’t get very excited about Barack’s “message of conciliation” with Republicans and big business, both of whom have been waging one sided class warfare on unions for decades. You don’t hear her shilling loudly for the nuclear industry like Obama, who counts Exelon – the world’s largest private operator of nuclear power plants – as one of his top campaign contributors.


But the big thing here is health care. Obama has really undermined his claim to be progressive by pushing a bizarre not-so "universal" health care plan that absurdly promises to cover less than half of the nation’s 47 or so uninsured. To make matters worse, Obama has gone after Edwards and Hillary’s plans by deceptively demonizing them (in classic Republican-style scare-tactic mass-mailings) as advancing terrible Big Government “mandates.”  As the smart liberal-populist economist and columnist Paul Krugman has been pointing out in the New York Times, Obama’s reactionary spin on the Edwards-Clinton health care proposal is eerily reminiscent of the right-wing “’Harry and Louise’ ads run by the insurance lobby in 1993, ads that helped undermine our last chance of getting universal health care.”


Krugman is now citing some sophisticated economic analysis showing that Obama’s bizarre plan would leave more than 20 million Americans uninsured and would cost $4,400 for every newly insured person.  Hillary’s plan (basically Edwards’ plan by the way) would insure everyone and cost just $2,700 per newly insured person.  


“That,” Krugman wrote today, “doesn’t look like a trivial difference.  One plan [Hillary-Edwards’] achieves more or less universal coverage; the other [Obama’s], although it costs more than 80 percent as much, covers only about half of those currently uninsured.”


One of the creepiest things about Obama’s very creepy health care plan is that Obama’s Republican-sounding concern with imaginary "government coercion" hides a reactionary promise to let a few people game the health care system for their own selfish benefit and at the expense of the common good.  As Krugman explained last December:


“Why have a [universal health insurance] mandate? The whole point of a universal health insurance system is that everyone pays in, even if they’re currently healthy, and in return everyone has insurance coverage if and whey they need it.”


“And it’s not just a matter of principle.  As a practical matter, letting people opt out if they don’t feel like insurance would make insurance substantially more expensive for everyone else.”


“Here’s why: under the Obama plan, as it now stands, healthy people could choose not to but insurance – then sign up for it if they developed health problems later.  Insurance companies couldn’t turn them away, because Mr. Obama’s plan, like those of his rivals, requires that insurers offer the same policy to everyone.”


“As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care.”


Liberal commentator Paul Starr, no Left radical, adds that “without an individual mandate for adults…other aspects of Obama’s [health care] plan collapse.  Insurers cannot be required to ignore pre-existing conditions [a critical promise made by each of the leading Democratic candidates, P.S.] if people can just wait to buy coverage anytime they’re sick.  Obama claims to want to bring the costs down first in order to make coverage affordable, but his plan would make insurance more expensive by giving healthy people an incentive not to pay for it until they need it.”


Now, of course, this might all seem fairly pathetic from an actual Left perspective, which calls for the obvious and common-sense egalitarian and cost-effective implementation of single-payer coverage.  Still, even small differences within the narrow U.S. spectrum can have significant outcomes at the bottom of the nation’s steep socioeconomic hierarchies.


To make matters yet more complicated, the Obama phenomenon seems to have more potentially progressive movement-building potential and its standard-bearer seems to have a conscious sense of the need to accompany Clinton-esque “insider” policy with  outside, grassroots pressure to bring about what he calls “change.” An Obama presidency could be expected to carry more progressive expectations (certain to be significantly frustrated by the reality of what an Obama presidency would actually do in the realm of policy) than a Clinton one (something that might be more favorable to left prospects down the road).  And if you value defeating the Republican candidate (very probably the dangerous hyper-militarist John McCain) first and foremost, then it is worth noting that Obama may well be more electable than Hillary next November.   


Meanwhile, of course, both Hillary and Barack are both dedicated “American exceptionalist” advocates of the mass murderous American Empire Project.  Neither of them can tell (and perhaps see) the truth about why the U.S invaded Iraq or the criminal nature of the occupation or the number of Iraqi lives we have ended and destroyed or our moral obligation to pay massive reparations to the people of Iraq and numerous other states. Both will continue the invasion for an indefinite period, whatever they might say on the campaign trail. Edwards wasn’t much if any better than them on this.


Now some comments beyond so-called Super Tuesday.


Whatever you do tomorrow, please also think long-term and across the election cycles to consider the wisdom of the following observations from Lawrence Shoup, Adolph Reed Jr. and Noam Chomsky:



“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading “electable” presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system.” 

“It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class sponsored candidate. The main issues of our time—corporate power, global warming, dehumanization, war and militarism, the need for single payer health care and quality education, fairness in union organizing, workplace democracy, justice for immigrants, an end to poverty, joblessness, homelessness, a fair electoral system, including direct election of presidents, free media coverage for all candidates, public financing of elections, proportional representation, and instant runoff/choice voting—will not be solved by the ruling class or their preferred candidates unless the people force them to. It has been argued that another and better New Deal serving people’s needs and not corporate profitability is conceivable under a Democratic administration in 2009. This would only be possible if people’s movements, through direct struggle, give the ruling plutocracy no choice but to grant the people’s just demands.” (Z Magazine, February 2008)


“Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to.  It’s a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them.” …

“We need to think about politics in a different way, one that doesn’t assume that the task is to lobby the Democrats or give them good ideas, and correct their misconceptions.”


“It’s a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power.” (The Progressive, November 2007)




“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.” 


“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena.  Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population.  A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’  But it isn’t.  It’s only a small part of politics.”..


“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power.  Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…”


“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made.  But they are secondary to serious political action.  The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”


(Chomsky, Interventions, 2007)



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