Elections 2008 & Obama’s “Vision”
The word that immediately rolled off of every tongue after the presidential election was "historic." And rightly so. A Black family in the White House is truly a momentous event. There were some surprises. One was that the election was not over after the Democratic convention. One might expect that the opposition party would have a landslide victory during a severe economic crisis, after eight years of disastrous policies on all fronts including the worst record on job growth of any post-war president and a rare decline in median wealth, with an incumbent so unpopular that his own party had to disavow him, and a dramatic collapse in U.S. standing in world opinion. The Democrats did win, barely. If the financial crisis had been slightly delayed, they might not have.
A good question is why the margin of victory for the opposition party was so small, given the circumstances. One possibility is that neither party reflects public opinion at a time when 80 percent think the country is going in the wrong direction and that the government is run by "a few big interests looking out for themselves," not for the people; a stunning 94 percent object that government does not attend to public opinion. As many studies show, both parties are well to the right of the population on many major issues, domestic and international.
It could be argued that no party speaking for the public would be viable in a society that is business-run to an unusual extent. Evidence for that description is substantial. At a very general level, evidence is provided by the predictive success of political economist Thomas Ferguson’s "investment theory" of politics, which holds that policies tend to reflect the wishes of the powerful blocs that invest every four years to control the state. More specific illustrations are numerous. To select one virtually at random, for 60 years the U.S. has failed to ratify the core principle of international labor law, which guarantees freedom of association. Legal analysts call it "the untouchable treaty in American politics," and observe that there has never even been any debate about the matter. Many have noted Washington’s dismissal of conventions of the International Labor Organization as contrasted with the intense dedication to enforcement of monopoly pricing rights for corporations ("intellectual property rights"). There is much to explore here, but this is not the place.
The two candidates in the Democratic primary were a woman and an African American. That too was historic. It would have been unimaginable 40 years ago. The fact that the country has become civilized enough to accept this outcome is a considerable tribute to the activism of the 1960s and its aftermath, an observation with lessons for the future.
In some ways the election followed familiar patterns. The McCain campaign was honest enough to announce clearly that the election wouldn’t be about issues. Sarah Palin’s hairdresser received twice the salary of McCain’s foreign policy adviser, the London Financial Times (FT) reported, probably an accurate reflection of significance for the campaign. Obama’s message of "hope" and "change" offered a virtual blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes. One could search websites for position papers, but correlation of these to policies is hardly spectacular and, in any event, what enters into voters’ choices is what the campaign places front and center, as party managers know well.
The Obama campaign greatly impressed the public relations industry, which named Obama "Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008," easily beating out Apple. The industry’s regular task is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices, thus undermining market theories. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy in much the same way.
The FT, the world’s premier business daily, reports the enthusiasm of the PR industry over the marketing of "brand Obama." Particularly impressed are those who "helped pioneer the packaging of candidates as consumer brands 30 years ago," when they designed the Reagan campaign. Obama is likely to "have more influence on boardrooms than any president since Ronald Reagan, [who] redefined what it was to be a CEO" by teaching the lesson that "You had to give them a vision." Reagan’s visionary performance led to "the 1980s and 1990s reign of the imperial CEO," an office that registered such towering successes as destroying the financial system and exporting much of the real economy while amassing huge personal fortunes, based largely on ability to choose the boards that determine salary and bonuses, thanks to regulations established by the nanny state for the rich.
Obama had expressed his admiration for Reagan as a "transformative figure." He was not referring to the rivers of blood that that Reagan spilled from Central America to southern Africa and beyond. Nor was he referring to Reagan’s great effectiveness in helping transform Pakistan into a nuclear-armed state with powerful radical Islamic forces, with consequences that Obama regards as the major foreign challenge to his Administration. So, yes, Reagan was a transformative figure abroad.
At home as well, though Obama was not referring to Reagan’s crucial role in transforming the U.S. from the world’s leading creditor to the world’s leading debtor, or converting it from an industrial society rather resembling Europe to one in which real wages for the majority stagnate and social indicators decline while a few who are favored by government policy gain fabulous wealth, among other forms of social malaise.
Rather, Obama was referring to the imaginary figure constructed by a remarkable PR campaign, which anointed Reagan as the High Priest of free-markets and small government, culminating in a reverential commemoration of the Great Man that was reminiscent of the veneration of Kim il-Sung, one of the more embarrassing moments of the modern history of Western political culture.
The imagery is untainted by Reagan’s breaking modern records in government intervention in the economy, while also somewhat increasing the size of government. Just to mention a few highlights, he was the most protectionist president in post-war American history, virtually doubling protectionist barriers in order to try to save the U.S. economy from takeover by more efficient Japanese producers; he called on the Pentagon to devise programs to instruct backward American management in modern production techniques; he bailed out Continental Illinois Bank and others while setting the stage for the huge Savings & Loan bailout; his "star wars" fantasies were sold to the business world, plausibly, as a huge taxpayer-funded bonanza to high tech industry; and on and on.
The term "Reagan" here refers not to the pathetic creature in the White House who, among other notable performances, put on his cowboy boots and declared a national emergency because the Nicaraguan army was two days from Texas—rather, to those who formulated and executed the policies of his Administration. Reagan’s "vision," like most heralded "visions," is entirely independent of his deeds. The vision that was constructed by the doctrinal institutions is indeed one of dedication to unfettered free markets and "democracy promotion." The creation of the "vision" was indeed a marketing triumph of which those who "helped pioneer the packaging of candidates as consumer brands 30 years ago" should be proud, as they celebrate their greatest triumph yet in 2008.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that once again elections were bought: "The best-funded candidates won nine out of 10 contests, and all but a few members of Congress will be returning to Washington." Before the conventions, the viable candidates with most funding from financial institutions were Obama and McCain, with 36 percent each. Preliminary results indicate that by the end, Obama’s campaign contributions, by industry, were concentrated among law firms (including lobbyists) and financial institutions, with Obama favored by a considerable margin. The investment theory of politics suggests some conclusions about guiding policies of the new Administration.
The power of financial institutions reflects the increasing shift of the economy from production to finance since the liberalization of finance in the 1970s, a root cause of the current economic crisis: the financial collapse of 2008, ongoing recession in the real economy, and the miserable performance of the economy for the large majority, whose real wages stagnated for 30 years, while benefits and social indicators declined. The steward of this impressive record, Alan Greenspan, attributed his success to "growing worker insecurity," which led to "atypical restraint on compensation increases"—and corresponding increases into the pockets of those who matter. Greenspan’s failure even to perceive the dramatic housing bubble, following the collapse of the earlier tech bubble that he oversaw, was the immediate cause of the current financial crisis, as he has ruefully conceded.
Reactions to the election from across the spectrum commonly adopted the "soaring rhetoric" of the Obama campaign. Veteran correspondent John Hughes wrote that "America has just shown the world an extraordinary example of democracy at work," while to British historian-journalist Tristram Hunt, the election showed that America is a land "where miracles happen," such as "the glorious epic of Barack Obama" (leftist French journalist Jean Daniel). "In no other country in the world is such an election possible," said Catherine Durandin of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. Many others were no less rapturous.
The rhetoric has some justification if we keep to the West, but elsewhere matters are different. Consider the world’s largest democracy, India. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is larger than all but a few countries of the world and is notorious for horrifying treatment of women, is not only a woman, but a Dalit ("untouchable"), at the lowest rung of India’s disgraceful caste system.
Turning to the Western hemisphere, consider its two poorest countries: Haiti and Bolivia. In Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990, grass-roots movements were organized in the slums and hills and, though without resources, elected their own candidate, the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The results astonished observers who expected an easy victory for the candidate of the elite and the U.S., a former World Bank official.
True, this victory for democracy was soon overturned by a military coup, followed by years of terror and suffering to the present, with crucial participation of the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the U.S. (contrary to self-serving illusions). But the victory itself was a far more "extraordinary example of democracy at work" than the U.S. miracle of 2008.
The same is true of the 2005 election in Bolivia. The indigenous majority, the most oppressed population in the hemisphere (those who survived), elected a candidate from their own ranks, a poor peasant, Evo Morales. The electoral victory was not based on soaring rhetoric about hope and change or body language and fluttering of eyelashes, but on crucial issues, very well known to the voters: control over resources, cultural rights, and so on. Furthermore, the election went far beyond pushing a lever or even efforts to get out the vote. It was a stage in long and intense popular struggles in the face of severe repression, which had won major victories, such as defeating the efforts to deprive poor people of water through privatization.
These popular movements did not simply take instructions from party leaders. Rather, they formulated the policies that their candidates were chosen to implement. That is quite different from the Western model of democracy, as we see in the reactions to Obama’s victory.
In the liberal Boston Globe, the headline of the lead story observed that Obama’s "grass-roots strategy leaves few debts to interest groups": labor unions, women, minorities, or other "traditional Democratic constituencies." That is only partially right, because massive funding by concentrated sectors of capital is ignored. But leaving that detail aside, the report is correct in saying that Obama’s hands are not tied, because his only debt is to "a grass-roots army of millions"—who took instructions, but contributed essentially nothing to formulating his program.
At the other end of the doctrinal spectrum, a headline in the Wall Street Journal reads "Grass-Roots Army Is Still at the Ready"—namely, ready to follow instructions to "push his agenda," whatever it may be.
Obama’s organizers regard the network they constructed "as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters," the Los Angeles Times reported. The movement, organized around the "Obama brand" can pressure Congress to "hew to the Obama agenda." But they are not to develop ideas and programs and call on their representatives to implement them. These would be among the "old ways of doing politics" from which the new "idealists" are "breaking free."
It is instructive to compare this picture to the workings of a functioning democracy such as Bolivia. The popular movements of the third world do not conform to the favored Western doctrine that the "function" of the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders"—the population—is to be "spectators of action" but not "participants" (Walter Lippmann, articulating a standard progressive view).
Perhaps there might even be some substance to fashionable slogans about "clash of civilizations."
In earlier periods of U.S. history, the public refused to keep to its assigned "function." Popular activism has repeatedly brought about substantial gains in freedom and justice. The authentic hope of the Obama campaign is that the "grass-roots army" organized to take instructions from the leader might "break free" and return to "old ways of doing politics," by direct participation in action.
In Bolivia, as in Haiti, efforts to promote democracy, social justice, and cultural rights, and to bring about desperately needed structural and institutional changes are, naturally, bitterly opposed by the traditional rulers, the Europeanized, mostly white elite in the Eastern provinces, the site of most of the natural resources currently desired by the West. Also, naturally, their quasi-secessionist movement is supported by Washington, which once again scarcely conceals its reflexive distaste for democracy when outcomes do not conform to strategic and economic interests. The generalization is familiar to serious scholarship, but does not make its way to commentary about the revered "freedom agenda."
To punish Bolivians for showing "the world an extraordinary example of democracy at work," the Bush administration cancelled trade preferences, threatening tens of thousands of jobs, on the pretext that Bolivia was not cooperating with U.S. counter-narcotic efforts. In the real world, the UN estimates that Bolivia’s coca crop increased 5 percent in 2007, as compared with a 26 percent increase in Colombia, the terror state that is Washington’s closest regional ally and the recipient of enormous military aid. AP reports that, "Cocaine seizures by Bolivian police working with DEA agents had also increased dramatically during the Morales administration."
"Drug wars" have regularly been used as a pretext for repression, violence, and state crimes, at home as well.
After Morales’s victory in a recall referendum in August 2008, with a sharp increase in support over his 2005 success, rightist opposition turned violent, leading to assassination of many peasants supporting the government. After the massacre, a summit meeting of UNASUR, the newly-formed Union of South American Republics, was convened in Santiago, Chile. The summit issued a strong statement of support for the elected Morales government, read by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The statement declared "their full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority"—referring to his overwhelming victory in the referendum a month earlier. Morales thanked UNASUR for its support, observing that, "For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States."
A matter of no slight significance, not reported in the U.S.
Turning to the future, what can we realistically expect of an Obama administration? We have two sources of information: actions and rhetoric.
The most important actions prior to taking office are selection of staff and advisers. The first selection was for vice president: Joe Biden, one of the strongest supporters of the Iraq invasion among Senate Democrats, a long-time Washington insider, who consistently votes with his fellow Democrats—though not always, as when he brought cheer to financial institutions by supporting a measure to make it harder for individuals to erase debt by declaring bankruptcy.