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“Systemic Rather Than Superficial Flaws”: Reflections on Candidate-Centered Elections and U.S. Political Culture


I put the best book of the last few years down for a moment and turned on the television last night (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, June 4th, 2008). It was Barack Obama, who has become something like Ronald Reagan (whom the conservative Obama has praised again and again during this presidential campaign) to me at this point. I personally find him very hard to watch.

I know this will offend some readers – some ZNet folks are caught up in the Obama phenomenon, I know, for some credible reasons – and to such readers I apologize, but I can’t lie.  I can take about three minutes of him before I have to turn the television off or switch the station. I could only stand two minutes of Reagan.

Sorry. Bear in mind, I live in Iowa, where we started getting hit by the candidates in April of 2007.  I’m just as tired of Hillary Clinton and I’m sure if John Edwards had somehow survived (impossible given his insistence on talking about class inequality and on praising the labor movement), I’d be nearly as sick of him as well by now.

It’s getting very old to me. Sort of like Obama’s language, which is often remarkably unoriginal in ways few of his many youthful supporters would have reason to know.

It’s not his fault, completely.  It’s what they have you do when you run for president and he happens to be very good at recycling vacuous rhetoric.

He talks about "charting a new direction for the country" —a rather vapid phrase used in 1968 by Robert F. Kennedy, as John Pilger recently pointed out (John Pilger, "From Kennedy to Obama: Liberalism’s Last Stand," ZNet Sustainer Commentary, June 1, 2008).

Here are some other Obama sayings and axioms he and his speechwriters have recycled from past presidential candidates and their speechwriters and (at the end) from one gubernatorial candidate:

* "politics is broken" (used by Bill Bradley in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000)

* "you need a president who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear" (Geraldine Ferraro, 1984)

* "this is a defining moment in our history" (Elizabeth Dole, speaking for Bob Dole in 1996)

* Washington as a place where politicians come to "score political points" (Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000)

* "lifting this country up" instead of dragging or tearing it down (Bob Dole, 1996)

* "we’re going to take this country back" (Howard Dean, 2004)

* "we can disagree without being disagreeable" (Gerald Ford, 1976)

* "unity over division" (Jesse Jackson, 1992)

* "hope over fear" (Bill Clinton, 1992 and John Kerry, 2004)

* "choose the future over the past" (Al Gore, 1992)

* overcome our "moral deficit" (Bush and Gore in 2000 and New Gingrich, 1994)

* move "beyond the divisions of race and class" (Bill Clinton, 1992)

* "the story of our country" (Ross Perot, 1992)

* "the genius of our country" (Bush, 2000)

* "the wonder of our country" (George H.W. Bush, 1988)

* "ordinary people doing extraordinary things" (Perot, 1992; Bush I, 1992; Bush II, 2000; Ronald Reagan, 1984)

* "Just words? Just words?" (Deval Patrick, 2006)

I’m sure there are many more examples.

The big corporate-crafted Hillary-Obama duel — now finally concluded — would have seemed much more meaningful to me if it had been more focused (maybe I should say if focused at all) on issues and policies that really matter. To an amazing extent the big battle was a soap opera squabble over who one likes or identifies with the most on the level of personality, looks, body language, character and of course on the level of race, ethnicity, and gender.

It wasn’t about issues. It wasn’t about substance. It wasn’t about policy. To a shocking extent, it was about the candidates themselves and their images and perceived qualities. It’s about who was rude to who. Who lied and therefore can’t be trusted. Who’s wanted to president since they were five years old. Who’s tough and who isn’t. Who has a strong sense of themselves and who doesn’t. Who has a good relationship with their spouse and who doesn’t. Who you’d like to have a beer or glass of wine with. Who can control their temper and who can’t. Who’s bitter and who’s balanced. Who can control their facial muscles and who can’t. Who’s cool and who’s square. Who’s nerdy and who’s hip. And so on.

It’s not Obama’s fault or Hillary’s fault – not so much. Blame corporate marketing and media, those essential forces shaping the nation’s quadrennial candidate-centered election spectacles.

Sometimes differences emerged that seemed a little more substantive but really weren’t.  In numerous little squabbles they had, a little investigation showed that corporate candidate X did or said exactly what they accused corporate candidate Y of doing or saying.

* Bill Clinton said Obama’s antiwar history was a "fairy tale." It pretty much was but so was Hillary’s claim to be antiwar.

* Hillary said Obama was squishy and mealy mouthed and disingenuous on NAFTA and globalization and trade. But so was/is she. They’re actually both strong neoliberal "free traders."

I could go on.

If you listened closely to the debates and studied their policy positions and you connected their comments up with their broader behavior and statements, it may have finally sunk in. Barack and Hillary were joined at the moral and ideological hip.  They were/are two peas in a moral-ideological and policy pod: conservative, tepid, centrist, corporate-imperial DLC-style Democrats with little if any substantial ideological and policy difference between them.

I’m sorry if this offends some readers but let’s be real here. As president, both HC and BO would: 

* keep a large U.S. force structure in Iraq for the life of their administrations, continuing the Holocaust we have imposed on that nation in the name of freedom.

* support Israel against the Palestinian people and the Arab world pretty much no matter what.

* sustain the bloody occupation of Afghanistan.

* talk about making certain small adjustments to NAFTA and CAFTA and the WTO and so forth but leave the basic structure and practices of corporate globalization fully intact.

* leave the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations in fundamental control of the health system.

* make noises about supporting labor and environmental causes and ending special interest domination but  respond mainly to the giant corporations that have the most money and power to influence politicians and policy.

*  talk against racial injustice and poverty but fail to undertake significant civil rights and social justice initiatives to tackle the deeply entrenched structures and practices of white supremacy and class oppression.

* reject the counsel of Dr. Martin Luther King by refusing to go after the gigantic and bloated so-called defense budget that sustains more than 720 overseas bases located in nearly country in the world and which accounts for half of the world’s military expenditures even while millions of Americans live in what poverty researchers now call "deep poverty" – at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.

* leave the basic top-heavy wealth structure of the country intact, doing relatively little or nothing about the fact that the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth – a fact that makes real and substantive popular democracy essentially impossible for reasons that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison used to worry about.  

* line up with Columbia and the international business agenda against Venezuela and independent left nationalism in Latin America.

* make aggressive noises and threatening moves toward Iran and its nuclear program real or imagined but say and do nothing about the dangerous and provocative nuclear arsenals of Israel and India.

* exploit the militarization of U.S. politics and use real and/or imaginary dangers abroad to justify assaults on civil liberties at home.

 

So I turned off the victory speech.  I’ve already heard five or six of them. I returned to the best book of the last few years, a study of what its author Sheldon Wolin calls "the specter of inverted totalitarianism." Under the corporate-crafted system and doctrine of what Wolin terms "managed democracy,"  "the citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as a participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate,’ that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions pre-designed to elicit them."

The corporate-managed "inverted totalitarianism" that passes for "democracy" in post-9/11 America finds its "culminating moment," Wolin finds, in "national elections when the attention of the nation is required to make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives." By Wolin’s account, "what is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash."

The new corporate-totalitarian system, Wolin writes, would "survive even if the Democrats were the majority in control of both the presidency and the Congress," something that is indicated by "the timidity of current Democratic proposals for reform."

The real and deeper problems are "systemic" in ways that incorporate and go beyond partisan shift changes in elite office-holding.

It’s not about who you support in these corporate-managed elections, people. It’s deeper than that, as Dr. Martin Luther King knew. 

Speaking of King and Obama’s favorite word "hope" (also a big word for a previous corporate triangulator named Bill Clinton, by the way), here (below) is an interesting formulation from a 1968 King essay (published after King’s execution) titled "A Testament of Hope":

 "Millions of Americans are coming to see that we are fighting an immoral war that costs nearly thirty billion dollars a year, that we are perpetuating racism, that are tolerating almost forty million poor during an overflowing material abundance. Yet they remain helpless to end the war, to feed the hungry, to make brotherhood a reality…In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced." [Martin Luther King Jr., " A Testament of Hope" [1968], p. 315 in Martin Luther King, Jr.,  A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.. edited by James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986)].

Haunting, yes?

So is the book I’ve been mentioning: Wolin’s Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ, 2008).

Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  Street’s next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (forthcoming in summer of 2008).

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