You know a nation’s political culture is dangerously captive to business power when John Edwards is “too left” for its ruling media and electoral system.
Big money and big media have decided that the former North Carolina Senator is too radical to merit serious consideration for the nation’s top job. So they’ve been working to push Edwards into the “second tier” of Democratic candidates, portraying the Democratic primaries as a two-way race between two more suitably conservative and well-funded centrists – Hillary Clinton and the curiously overnight sensation (Edwards’ officially imposed rival as the “anti-Hillary”) Barack Obama.
But of course just because the rich and the right like to paint some person or institution out as “Left” doesn’t mean the description is accurate. The same “charge” has long been hurled by leading reactionaries at such conservative, power-worshipping entities as The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the American “higher education” system. The corporate-neoliberal Bill Clinton, champion of NAFTA and “welfare reform,” is still portrayed as representing “the Left” in the discourse of both the paranoid right and some parts of the U.S. “mainstream.” I’ve even heard Illinois Republicans describe the militantly pro-business mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley – a good friend of George W. Bush – as part of “the left-wing conspiracy.” At the paranoid extremes, people like the Clintons and Obama are regularly described as a “socialists.”
“THE POPULIST LABEL DOESN’T REALLY FIT”
There’s more basis for the “accusation” with Edwards than with the Clintons, Obama or Daley, but the fact that it is made with damaging effect on Edwards’ prospects nonetheless speaks volumes about the shocking moral and ideological narrowness of what passes for a democratic political culture in the U.S.
Besides owning an opulent new 28,000-square-foot mansion with its own indoor basketball and squash courts, Edwards sat for years on the board of a Wall Street hedge fund that invested in precisely the sort of sub-prime mortgage lending he has repeatedly chastised for exploiting the poor.
In an interview last spring, New York Times writer Matt Bai learned that Edwards “might consider pressuring the Fed to lower interest raters in order to tighten labor markets, but he wasn’t sure. Similarly,” Bai found, Edwards “was wary of raising the tax rate on capital, fearing that it would cause capital to flee the country. He sounded equally unenthused,” Bai added, “about returning to the days of steeper levies on the superrich.”
“The more you talk to Edwards,” Bai concluded, “the more apparent it is that the populist label doesn’t quite fit.”
Bai supports this judgment with a telling quote from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich – the left-liberal academician who left the Clinton administration in protest of its excessively reactionary domestic policies. “Rhetorically, if you’re calling Edwards a populist,” Reich told Bai, “it’s true that he cares a lot about the poor. He evinces a lot of concern for the middle class and middle-class anxieties. But he’s not in any way attacking the rich or corporations. He’s not explaining one fundamental fact in life, which is that the very rich have all the money” (Matt Bai, “The Poverty Platform,” New York Times Magazine, June 19, 2007).
When asked to identify his “dream job” other than being the president of the U.S., Bai notes, Edwards picked “[textile] mill supervisor.” That is hardly the sort of occupational choice that one identifies with the ambitions of a Left radical – a coordinator of proletarian labor dedicated to increasing the rate of surplus value that be extracted from the working class for the capitalist owners!
“TO HELP PEOPLE BE AS SUCCESSFUL AS I’VE BEEN”: EQUALITY V. EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY
The biggest tip-off of the rather obvious fact that Edwards is less than a full-blown Left “populist” is his repeated claim that his great aim is to “help people have a chance to be as successful as I have been.” This is Edwards’ way of saying that he buys into the standard bourgeois-American claim that the only acceptable form of equality to be pursued is equality of opportunity, not equality of condition.
That is not the position of the actual historical Left, which is opposed to social inequality as such. Serious and “hard” Left (populist, Marxist, anarchist, syndicalist or populist) vision has long been about all-around class leveling before, during, and after the policy process. For that Left, “equality” is about equality of outcomes, not just “opportunity.” It’s not about giving everyone an identical chance to become fabulously rich or miserably poor in accord with their particular combination of talent or hard work or lack thereof.
The economic disparities that scar American and global life today would strike actual Leftists as morally offensive and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good even if everyone at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equal position at the starting line of a “level playing field.” There is no such field in really existing society, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the
U.S. population to own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth along with a higher percentage of its policymakers.
Listen for example to leading Left intellectual Noam Chomsky’s 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 the other begins five feet from the finish line.” “That’s a good analogy,” Chomsky said, “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 (Noam Chomsky, The Common Good [Common Courage, 1998], pp. 9-10).”
As the democratic Socialist Eugene Debs used to say, the point – for radicals, at least – is not to “rise from the masses,” but to “rise with the masses.” The actual Left is not interested in the creation of a more superficially equal – equal start but not equal finish – rat race.
A CURIOUS ATTACHMENT TO ISSUES THE PLUTOCRACY WISHES TO SUPPRESS
Edwards is hardly a Eugene Debs. His “radicalism” pales even in comparison to that of Dennis Kucinich. Since the parameters of acceptable debate have contracted to a perilously constricted space under the endless assault of corporate power, however, it is hardly surprising that dominant business interests within and beyond the all-powerful corporate media portray and shun him as “too left.”
Having attained his fortune as a trial lawyer suing hospitals and corporations, Edwards appears to be deeply concerned (however hypocritical he might sound at times) about poverty and inequality. After heading a liberal poverty research center in Chapel Hill for three years, he announced his campaign in an impoverished section New Orleans – the nation’s leading symbol of concentrated and racialiized poverty and government neglect. He speaks insistently and repeatedly about and against the growing chasm between rich and poor within the United States.
He also has the most progressive and detailed health care proposal among the top-tier Democratic candidates. He advocates rolling back Bush’s tax cuts for people who receive more than $200,000 a year to fund universal coverage. His universal health care plan is to the left of the cheaper and milder copy-cat version proposed by Barack Obama in that it is more adequately funded (thanks to the proposed tax-cut rollback), truly universal and would compel private insurance companies to compete with government plans and could evolve into single payer. Unlike the already legendarily mealy-mouthed Barack “The Conciliator” Obama (who describes capitalism as the United States’ “greatest asset”), Edwards doesn’t flinch at the mention of single-payer health insurance (he actually embraces it is a long-term goal and says it more efficient than private insurance) and positively says that his plan could move over time (as seems very unlikely) in a single payer direction.
Edwards calls himself “a real Democrat, not a ‘new [corporate-neoliberal] Democrat.’” He describes the labor movement as “the greatest anti-poverty program in American history.” He refuses – on the campaign trail at least – to privilege deficit reduction over poverty reduction. He claims to reject the “new Democrats’” strategy of “trading our [Wall Street] insiders for their [the Republicans' Wall Street] insiders.” He recently (during a candidates’ debate in South Carolina) criticized Obama’s path of accommodation and “triangulation,” saying that the only way to defeat poverty and reduce inequality is to “fight” big corporate interests and “beat them again and again.”
He’s speaking the languages of labor, the New Deal and the (stillborn) War on Poverty to a noteworthy extent in a time when the labor movement and the notion of positive government action in pursuit of egalitarian and anti-poverty ends have been officially proclaimed dead and over (drowned in the icy individualist waters of neoliberal calculation)by the business class masters of policy and opinion. And he’s doing this in a period when the issues of inequality and economic insecurity resonate with a considerable and growing section of the ever more class-fractured citizenry.
The owners and coordinators of the United States’ winner-take-all dollar democracy and corporate media empire have good reasons to want to marginalize serious discussion of economic inequality in the U.S. after thirty five years in which the share of U.S. “earnings” appropriated by the richest 1 percent of American has tripled while incomes have stagnated and fallen for the nation’s working class majority. The most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world by far, the U.S. is now at pre-New Deal levels of economic disparity. Reflecting three plus decades of richly media-enabled class warfare of the unmentionable sort – from the top down – the top 1 percent now owns half the nation’s wealth. This is something the “mainstream” U.S. media oligopoly would very much like to keep out of sustained and serious public attention.
In this harrowing context, even the multimillionaire, mansion-inhabiting proponent of American social mobility mythology John Edwards is too far left to become the president of the U.S. Never mind that he could be counted on to betray many of his more progressive and populist-sounding promises immediately upon the attainment of power. Such is the depth of the business-sponsored authoritarian peril that haunts this land.
Paul Street is the author of numerous books, articles, project studies, editorials, speeches and book chapters. His latest book is just out: Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). Paul can be reached at [email protected]