From Edwards and Obama to Occupy and the Tea Party

A shorter version of this essay appeared on Counterpunch on November 2, 2011

http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/02/report-from-iowa/ [1]


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…

- Noam Chomsky, October 2004



2007: Fight v.  Light


What a difference four years makes. Around this time in 2007 the race for Iowa’s pivotal Democratic Party presidential caucus was in full swing. The big national money and media focus was on the corporate-sponsored candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but John Edwards was electrifying town hall crowds across the state with populist jeremiads against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small economic elite.  “Real progressive change” could never be achieved without “an epic fight” with the wealthy Few, he said.


Edwards mocked Obama’s desire to make peace with Republicans and the business elite as “singing Kumbaya.” He criticized the future president’s promise to win such change by “sitting down at a big negotiating table” with Republicans and corporate leaders as a childish fantasy. “They’ll eat everything served,” Edwards observed. 


At a debate in Des Moines, Obama responded with the language of Harvard, Wall Street and the Council of Foreign Relations. “We don’t need more heat,” he told Edwards and the world: “we need more light.”


It was a warning of conservative, power-friendly policy to come in deceptive fake-progressive guise.


The “Hidden Primary” and Its Results


We know what happened. Obama triumphed in Iowa and later in the general election. Edwards’ career collapsed in personal scandal. And Obama went on to validate the disgraced politician’s forewarnings to a degree that has shocked even some of his early radical critics. His bringers of “light” all came from the corporate and imperial establishment. 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 paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds, 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) too  numerous to list here, the “change” and “hope” presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the power of what the radical critics Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”


As the liberal author Bill Greider noted in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak but is He Listening?”:  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.”


There’s lots of protection and money for the top 1 percent that owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s elected officials. The “right people” do not include the record-setting 46 million Americans stuck below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty measure or the 25 million struggling with unemployment.


It has all proceeded in accord with longstanding patterns of wealth and power. As the left historian Laurence Shoup noted in February of 2008, the officially “elect-able” candidates are vetted in advance by “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 claimed – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”[2]



Little Left But Liberal Fear


If ever a sitting Democratic president deserved a challenge from the left of his party in the primary elections preceding his nomination for a second term, it is Barack Obama. But there’s nothing remotely close to that in the works in Iowa– nothing except a mild effort on the part of a few Iowa progressive Democrats to elect “uncommitted delegates” to the Democratic convention. All the excited Caucus anger and energy in Iowa this time around is with the super-regressive Republicans, with their bizarre claims that corporate Democrats are totalitarian socialists and with their revolting drive to roll back American history to the McKinley administration. 


Obama staffers are in the coffee shops of Iowa City and Des Moines, trying to get good numbers for a party re-coronation of Obama on the first Tuesday of January 2012. Semi-depressed volunteers trickle in and sit down across from young centrist activists. You can hear some of the volunteers expressing “disappointment” in their president and how he is “too willing to make deals” with the GOP and business. Clinging to the fantastic notion (which they share with many on the right) that the deeply conservative chief executive is really left leaning, they seem to think these deals are contrary to the president’s supposed inner progressive essence. Some complain about how Obama’s alleged noble aims are blocked by Republicans, ignoring the fact that Obama governed towards the corporate and imperial right when he had strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. 


The main theme in their comments is fear – fear of the terrible Tea Party, of Rick Perry, Herman Cain and the GOP. Such is the standard Lesser Evil-ist denouement of nearly three years of business-friendly right-centrist policy on the part of the politician who swept Iowa with dreamy hopes of “real [progressive] change” in the summer and fall of 2007. As usual, the liberal pseudo-left fears and the authentic right hates.



Electoral Extravaganzas v. Serious Political Action


At the same time, something new and exciting is afoot on the ground, sparked by the courage and brilliance of grassroots activists in distant New York City’s financial district. The 2007-08 Edwards Iowa campaign (endorsed by Ralph Nader on MSNBC in mid-December 2007[3]) may have been swept down the memory hole, but crazy John Edwards’ last core campaign issue – the obscene wealth and power of the very rich amidst mass poverty and unemployment – is in the national spotlight like no time in recent memory thanks to a remarkable new protest movement that targets the fortunes, greed, and influence of “the 1 percent.” It has come to the fore courtesy not of any politician, political party or public figure but of a remarkable new social protest movement that denounces the deadly wealth and power of “the 1 percent.” A recent CBS New York Times survey shows that substantially more Americans agree (43 percent) than disagree (27 percent) with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s goals.  Nearly two-thirds say American wealth should be distributed more equally. As the Democrats struggle to rally their diminished and demobilized base against (quite literally) nobody in the Iowa Caucus and as national media chase the Republican Party’s arch-plutocratic contenders across the state, the occupation movement has brought new populist energy to Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, and other Iowa locations.   


Numerous mainstream commentators have tried to portray the OWS as “the Tea Party of the left.” Beneath surface parallels, the analogy misses the mark on numerous key levels.[4]  One critical difference is that OWS is truly independent of partisan and candidate-centered major-party politics.  The Tea Party phenomenon at the end of the day was all about giving the Republican Party a fake-populist makeover for the 2010 mid-term elections and (Tea Partiers hoped) 2012.  It was a re-branding exercise for the G.O.P. By contrast, OWSers are not going to be easily sucked into Democratic Party politics this year or next. The OWS “kids” get it that American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. They are taking the fight beneath parties and candidates to the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay. They know in their bones that, to quote the late and great radical American historian Howard Zinn, “it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House” (or the governors’ mansion or the congressional or state-legislative or city council office) at the end of the day. It’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying, and (last but not least) organizing on a day-to-day basis beneath and beyond the “personalized electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that big money and big media stage for us every 2 and 4 years. They speak for and as citizens, not politicians, knowing very well that (with very rare exceptions) those in the latter category will always surrender their integrity in the name of “realism.”


I doubt that even a scandal-free Edwards on steroids could bring them back into the major party and electoral fold. Things have changed.   Young progressives get it like never before that, as Zinn’s longtime friend and ally Noam Chomsky explained two presidential election spectacles ago:


“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.” [5] 


Fear This: “You Shut ‘Em Down”


Which brings me to something else for Iowa Democrats to fear, along with the Republicans they dread. As the Des Moines Register recently reported, the Iowa occupation movement in Des Moines is calling for protesters to descend on Iowa prior to the January 3rd Caucuses.  The goal is to "occupy" the campaign headquarters of President Obama and the GOP candidates — shutting them down if necessary — in the week leading up to the leadoff caucuses. "You go inside or if they won't let you in, you shut 'em down. You sit in front of their doors," long time Des Moines Catholic Worker organizer Frank Cordaro told the Register. Cordaro told CNN the idea is not to prevent people from taking part in the actual Iowa caucuses, adding that "We're not against the actual electoral process. We're against the people who own it right now. And we're trying to reclaim it.” [6]


Good. I might quibble with Cordaro on the need to in fact challenge the actually existing electoral processes in Iowa and the nation but he is certainly correct to note that those processes have been captured by the rich. And I have been arguing for some time in Iowa City that Iowa activists have a special responsibility to make a strong statement about the limits of candidate-centered politics given their state’s exaggerated role – rivaled only by New Hampshire, home to the next earliest presidential primary – in the staging of the corporate-managed one-and-a-half party system’s citizen-marginalizing and candidate-centered spectacles.  Where better than Iowa, where the absurdly personalized big money presidential campaign starts a year before the rest of the nation gets swamped, to make a statement for the kind of politics that Chomsky advocates (and Zinn advocated) over and against that promoted by the big money and media masters? And where better to make that statement than in the campaign headquarters of the top politicians in the football-mad state that kicks the whole sorry quadrennial spectacle off? Please consider coming to Iowa and help us “shut ‘em down.”  


Iowa City resident Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author or numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).  Street can be reached at [email protected]

[1] I decided to extend the essay, add notes, and elaborate considerably upon learning that Occupy Iowa may target the headquarters of presidential candidates (a tactic I would support) in the state.  See the final section (titled “Fear This: ‘You Shut ‘Em Down’”) of this essay and the source listed in note 6 (below).


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


[3] On MSNBC's "Hardball" on December 17, 2007, Nader told political talk show host Chris Mathews that Obama had "excluded himself from the progressive coalition by the statements he's made, unfortunately.  He's a lot smarter than his public statements, which are extremely conciliatory to conciliatory to concentrated power and big business…The people of Iowa and New Hampshire have to ask themselves: ‘who is going to fight for you?’” Explaining why he was endorsing Edwards in Iowa, Nader noted that "Edwards raises the question of the concentration of power and wealth and power in a few hands that are working against the majority of people." 


[4] For an extensive discussion, see Paul Street, “The Tea Party v. OWS Core Differences Beneath Surface Parallels,” ZNet (October 28, 2011) at http://www.zcomm.org/occupy-wall-street-v-the-tea-party-by-paul-street


[5] Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City, Lights, 2007), 99.


[6] Catalina Carnia, “Protesters Want to ‘Occupy’ Ahead of the Iowa Caucuses,” USA Today, November 1, 2011 at http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2011/11/occupy-wall-street-iowa-caucuses-/1


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