“All of Them Make Promises”: Reflections on the Big Hope Chill and the Coming Democratic Debacle

“No Matter Who You Put In, It’s the Same Thing”


The Democrats are going to take a considerable hit in the mid-term elections.  The only question is how big their losses will be [1]. A recent Public Broadcasting System “News Hour” report from a rustbelt county in Ohio helps us understand  some of why.


At one point in the report, PBS reporter Betsy Stark went to a church that is providing free meals and asked an unemployed black male named Steve Sanders if he will be voting in the elections. “Probably not,” Sanders said. Asked to elaborate on why, Sanders says “Seems pretty useless. You know, it seems like, no matter who you put in, it's the same thing.” 


Stark asked another impoverished black ex-worker, Larry Dowdy, “So, who are you going to vote for in this race?” “What difference does it really make?” Dowdy replied. “All of them make promises [2].


Working class and black, Sanders and Dowdy are part of the demographic base that elected Barack Obama and hundreds of Democratic lawmakers into office two distant falls ago. Now they are demoralized and demobilized.


“If voting made any difference,” the legendary anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “they’d make it illegal.” Steve Sanders and Larry Dowdy would seem to agree with at least part of that statement. 


They are not alone. The Obama Democrats, who swept into nominal power under the banner of historic “Change” in November 2008, are confronting widespread malaise in their onetime progressive “base,” which seems to have come to concluded that the much ballyhooed American ballot box is not everything its cracked up to be.



“Sometimes That Fades”


The Democratic establishment knows this very well and is running scared. The Republican Party is actually less popular than Obama and the Democrats on the eve of the midterms.  But this does not seem to matter all that much given the depth and degree of the economic crisis, the limited choices afforded to voters under the American “one-and-half party system,” the weak voter turnout that is typical of mid-term elections, and the energy and turnout boost that the Republicans are getting from right-wing media and the related Tea Party phenomenon. For months, opinion pollsters and political commentators and activists have reported a large “enthusiasm gap” between voters who plan to choose a Republican – this includes the preponderant majority of Tea Partiers (who are highly driven to vote) – and those who would normally vote Democratic.  The nation’s rightmost voters are “fired up, ready to go” (to use Obama’s 2007-08 campaign slogan, appropriated from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement). The rise of the business-backed hard-right “super Republican” Tea Party, with its highly motivated activists and voters, has helped the moribund GOP re-brand itself and seize the mantle of “change” and the illusion of novelty, making it more difficult for Democrats to claim that a vote for the Republicans Party represents a return to the past.


The Democratic “base’s” comparative depression and indifference has lead top Democratic politicos to express frustration with progressives and other Democrats for failing to understand the stakes in the upcoming elections.  It would be “inexcusable” for Democratic voters to sit the mid-terms out, Obama told Rolling Stone magazine a few weeks ago.  “Don’t compare [us] to the Almighty,” Joe Biden lectured disgruntled Democrats, “compare [us] to the alternative” – described by him as “the Republican Tea Party” [3]. Taking a softer tone, Team Obama has recently out a somewhat more apologetic message in the form of a personalized e-mail message to Democrats from the President of the United States.  The message’s dominant theme is that the “movement” for progressive “change” his candidacy represented continues even if it has faced frustration imposed by the rich and powerful:


“I come into this election with clear eyes. I am proud of all we have achieved together, but I am mindful of all that remains to be done. I know some out there are frustrated by the pace of our progress. I want you to know I'm frustrated, too. But with so much riding on the outcome of this election, I need everyone to get in this game. Neither one of us is here because we thought it would be easy. Making change is hard. It's what we've said from the beginning. And we've got the lumps to show for it. The fight this fall is as critical as any this movement has taken on together. And if we are serious about change, we need to fight as hard as we ever have. The very special interests who have stood in the way of change need to fight as hard as we ever have. The very special interests who have stood in the way of change at every turn want to put their conservative allies in control of Congress. And they're doing it with the help of billionaires and corporate special interests underwriting shadowy campaign ads. If they succeed, they will not stop at making our work more difficult — they will do their best to undo what you and I fought so hard to achieve. There is no better time for you to start fighting back — a fellow grassroots supporter has promised to match, dollar for dollar, whatever you can chip in today. I know that sometimes it feels like we've come a long way from the hope and excitement of the inauguration, with its "Hope" posters and historic crowds on the National Mall.I will never forget it. But it was never why we picked up this fight.”


“I didn't run for president because I wanted to do what would make me popular. And you didn't help elect me so I could read the polls and calculate how to keep myself in office. You and I are in this because we believe in a simple idea — that each and every one of us, working together, has the power to move this country forward. We believed that this was the moment to solve the challenges that the country had ignored for far too long. That change happens only from the bottom up. That change happens only because of you.”


“So I need you to fight for it over the next 26 days. I need your time. I need your commitment. And I need your help to get your friends and neighbors involved. Please donate $3 — and renew your commitment today. If we meet this test — if you, like me, believe that change is not a spectator sport — we will not just win this election. In the years that come, we can realize the change we are seeking — and reclaim the American dream for this generation.”


“Thank you for being a part of it,”


President Barack Obama [4]


In a recent campaign speech in Portland, Oregon, Obama talked of the exhaustion many of his supporters have experienced and of the difficulty involved in “the pursuit of change….Sometimes it can wear you down,” the president intoned, referring to what he called the difficulties inherent in “our big, messy democracy.”  Obama recalled a giant Portland rally in the spring of 2008.  “All that hope that we felt when we had that 70,000-person rally,” Obama said. “Sometimes that fades”[5].



A Blunt Lesson About Power


It is interesting if predictable to see Team Obama resurrect the fake-progressive “fight,” and “change from the bottom up” rhetoric of 2007 and 2008.  Obama’s talk of a battle between “this movement” and “the [wealthy] special interests” has lay largely dormant for the last two years, as Obama’s “yes we can” gave way to the “no we can’t.” The progressive-sounding discourse naturally took a backseat as he kept his promises to the rich and powerful few he knew to hold the real keys to power under America’s perverted, money-dominated system of “representative democracy,” marked by too much corporate and financial representation and too little popular democracy. The “fading” passion the president refers to is a natural outcome of his embodiment of what the formerly left Christopher Hitches once called “the essence of American politics….  This essence, when distilled,” Hitchens explained:


“consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism…That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It’s no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers” [6].



The Democratic Party’s harangues of and pleas to, the “base” are not likely to succeed. Why should that “base” not be deeply demoralized amidst the continuation of epic mass unemployment, poverty, and foreclosures even while Wall Street salaries rebound to record levels and talking heads announce the “end of the recession?” Consistent with the “deeply conservative” arch-“conciliator” [7] Barack Obama’s longstanding fake-pragmatist, pseudo-progressive  “business liberalism” [8] the “Obama, Inc.” [9] administration has born the mark of Hitchens’ “reserve tag” to become a depressing monument to the old French saying: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewards capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) administration has epitomized the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money” [10].


You haven’t had to be a radical leftist like myself  to be bothered by Obama’s centrist, business-friendly drift and related (highly predictable and in fact predicted [11]) betrayal of the Democratic Party’s working class and poor constituencies. The liberal Democratic New York Times columnist Bob Herbert – a longstanding Obama fan – expressed his disgust with the Obama Democrats after Republican Scott Brown’s Tea Party-assisted victory over Martha Coakely in the open seat US. Senate election early this year in an OpEd titled “They [the Democrats – P.S.] Still Don’t Get It”:


“The door is being slammed on the American dream and the politicians, including the president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, seem not just helpless to deal with the crisis, but completely out of touch with the hardships that have fallen on so many.”


“…While the nation was suffering through the worst economy since the Depression, the Democrats wasted a year squabbling like unruly toddlers over health insurance legislation. No one in his or her right mind could have believed that a workable, efficient, cost-effective system could come out of the monstrously ugly plan that finally emerged from the Senate after long months of shady alliances, disgraceful back-room deals, outlandish payoffs and abject capitulation [emphasis added] to the insurance companies and giant pharmaceutical outfits.”


 “The public interest? Forget about it.”


“…The question for Democrats is whether there is anything that will wake them up to their obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans and help them take the government, including the Supreme Court, back from the big banks, the giant corporations and the myriad other predatory interests that put the value of a dollar high above the value of human beings” [12].



As the left-liberal author Bill Greider noted in The Washington Post last year, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it” [13]. And – a critical point– they have received this lesson with Democrats at the helm.


This is not all that new, historically speaking. The big-chilling Hope-Killing Obama let-down is just an especially dramatic example of a very old problem in the United States. Every four years, many Americans are led to invest their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These voters are duped into dreaming that a savior can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable. The dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.”  In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways.  They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system.  In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate” [14]. Relying heavily on candidates’ repeated promise to restore “hope” to a populace disillusioned by corporate control, corruption, and inequality – a standard claim of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates – this  dark essence of United States political culture goes back further than the corporate-neoliberal era into which Obama came of political age.  It is arguably as old the Republic itself, always torn by the rift between democratic promise and authoritarian realities of concentrated wealth and power [15].



Resentment Abhors a Vacuum


I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election (even though I was personally compelled to protest vote for Ralph Nader) for what might strike some readers as a curious reason. I thought it would be essential and useful for U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones, to experience life under a Democratic presidential administration.  I wanted American to experience and re-experience the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system in a more obvious way and to confront the gap between their expectations and the reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rule with Democrats at the nominal helm. The corporate Democrats are better able, I reasoned, to deceptively pose as a progressive alternative to business class and imperial rule and the Republicans when they are out of office. They are more effectively exposed as ultimately inadequate tribunes of the ordinary working people they claim to represent when they hold power and then fail to deliver on popular hopes and dreams they've ridden and raised on the road to office. And no amount of lecturing or warning from older progressives could begin to match the actual lived experience of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid et al.'s right-center policy and practice when it comes to younger citizens learning that (in Marxist commentator Doug Henwood’s words) "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top political offices [16]. The basic institutional reality stays the same.


As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it recently (on Facebook): "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…t. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”  The age of Obama is, or at least should be, a very teachable moment for lefties.


At the same time, however, I worried from the start that the potentially left-leaning disillusionment that could result from the experience of Obama and Democratic disappointment and betrayal would not be worth a hill of radical –democratic beans unless and until popular forces develop considerably more capacity and willingness than they possessed to organize for meaningful social and political change from the bottom up. I was concerned that such disillusionment could be dangerous in the absence of such left relevance.  These fears were well-grounded. Popular resentment abhors a vacuum and the arch-authoritarian, proto-fascistic, paranoid-style talk radio-Tea party right has been all-too ready, willing, and able to provide a dangerously misdirected vehicle for popular anger.  No small part of the dangerous reckoning is coming due next Tuesday.



Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  Street is currently completing a book titled “Crashing the Tea Party,” co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at [email protected]




1 Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, “G.O.P. is Posed to Seize House, if Not Senate,” New York Times, October 24, 2010, sec.1, 1, 21.


2 Public Broadcasting System, “In Ohio, Job Losses May Sway Election Choices,” October 22, 2010, at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec10/ohio_10-21.html


3 Michael O’Brien, “Biden: ‘The Republican Tea Party is the Alternative,’” The Hill (September 20, 2010) at www.thehill.com/…/119811-biden-the-republican-tea-party-is-the-alternative


4 E-mail from [email protected] to Paul Street on October 2,  2010


5 Mark Leibovich, “Back on the Stump, a Chastened Obama Takes a Harsher Tone,” New York Times, October 24, 2010, section 1, 22.


6  Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000),  pp. 17-18.


7  Larissar MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007)


8  Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2009).


9  Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006)


10  Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.  For a detailed account of Obama’s first corporate and imperial year in power, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).


11 See, for one example, Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), 56-58.


12 Bob Herbert, “They Still Don’t Get It,” New York Times, January 23, 2010.


13 William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post,March 22, 2009.


14 Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine (February 2008), p. 31.


15 Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (NewYork, 1946), pp. 3-56; Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International, 1960); Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Paul Street, “By All Means, Study the Founders: Notes from the Democratic Left,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies Volume 24, Number 4 (October-December 2003): 281-303; Paul Street, “Day After July 4th Reflections on the Founders,” ZNet Magazine (July 5, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5823.


16 Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008); Street, Barack Obama and the Future, 204-05.

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