But you’ll never break, never break, never break, never break…this heart of stone.
- Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, 1965
Plus Ca Change
Last Thursday night, a record number of disproportionately middle-class and white Democrats went to the critical Iowa Caucuses to proclaim “the king is dead, long live the king.” The deceased sovereign is the elitist neo-Hamiltonian corporate-imperial neoliberalism of the 1990s, represented by the “experience” and “expertise” of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The living monarch is the elitist neo-Hamiltonian corporate-imperial neoliberalism and racial accommodationism of Barack Obama, who claims to represent the goals of “unity,” “change,” and “hope.” How many of the Obama caucus-goers knew this was what they voted for I cannot honestly say. It was certainly a minority. But consciousness aside, objective reality is harsh: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
According to the slow-witted Republican New York Times columnist and “Public” Broadcast System (PBS) pundit David Brooks on Friday morning, “Barack Obama seems to have won the caucuses. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this. An African-American man wins a closely fought campaign in a pivotal state. He beats two strong opponents, including the mighty Clinton machine. He does it in a system that favors rural voters. He does it by getting young voters to come out to the caucuses.” Brooks considers Obama’s Iowa triumph “a political earthquake” representing “one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic becomes actual and takes on political substance…American politics is about to experience a fresh wind” (“The Two Earthquakes,” New York Times, 4 January 2007, A22).
Beneath Waves of Delirious Obamanism
Well, I was on the ground at the epicenter of the seismic activity, struggling against the Barockabee tsunami in a heavily academic and hence Obama-oriented precinct. The waves of delirious Obamanism rolled over me from the beginning of the caucus. I stood at the entrance giving away liberal-populist John Edwards stickers without illusion (about Edwards’ nominate-ability or degree of progressivism) to less than 1 in 5 of the record 733 people who crowded into the Iowa City High gymnasium. It was something to behold and great fun, actually. I had a blast.
But sorry, I was not “moved.” I’d done my homework on the candidates from the beginning and basic consultation of Barackabee’s written, spoken, and policy record revealed the rather elementary and over-obvious fact that Obama is a master triangulator and class-race accommodator in the insidious corporate-neoliberal and militaristic Clinton-DLC mode. I also learned that he was being richly rewarded for his careful, cautious, and even “deeply conservative” politics and rhetoric with more than $80 million (just $10 million behind Hillary) in largely corporate-funded campaign financing (Center for Responsive Politics 2007), with the support of much of the Democratic Party’s imperial foreign policy establishment and (perhaps most significant of all) with astonishing and unprecedented levels of dominant (corporate) media love (1).
Ralph Nader got it right when he said the following to Chris Mathews on MSNBC a week before Christmas: “he [Obama] has 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 concentrated power and big business.” By sharp contrast, Nader noted that “Edwards raises the question of the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands that are working against the majority of people. The people of Iowa and New Hampshire,” Nader added, “have to ask themselves: who is going to fight for you?”
Edwards ran a significantly more leftward, populist, honest, and democratic campaign (2). I was on the ground and saw it all in daily and intimate fashion.
I (well to the Left of Kucinich) will take grandiose personal credit for winning at least 50 of the 160 votes that Edwards got in IC Precinct 24 and thus for keeping Obama’s delegate margin down by one. I dare the political historians to delete this triumph from the annals of electoral struggle!
Money, Message, and Data-Mining
For what it’s worth, the Edwards campaign had superior organizers and staff, the best union support, and the most of the sort of people who can and do function in labor and social movements – real activists. But so what? They lost not so much to the Obama campaign as to big money, corporate marketing science, and dominant “mainstream” (corporate) media. That’s how the United States’ openly plutocratic “dollar democracy” –the “best that money can [and did] buy” – works.
According to the New York Post, Obama spent more than $9 million on television ads in Iowa – the most of any candidate in the state. The second-place finisher, labor-"populist" Edwards, spent just $3.2 million. Obama got 38 percent of the state’s Democratic Party delegates, meaning that he spent $236,842 per delegate percentage point. Edwards got 30 percent of the state’s Democratic Party delegates, meaning that he spent $106,667 per delegate percentage point. Apparently, the much more well-funded Obama campaign spent considerably more than the Edwards campaign (which has raised around $30 million) on getting its expensively consultant-crafted message out across the corporate media. For what it’s worth, the third place Clinton campaign (the most well-funded campaign at $90 million) came in with highest priced television bill for the results it got in Iowa. Spending $7.2 million to get 29 percent of the delegates (barely behind Edwards), it invested more than $240,000 in ads per delegate percentage point (3).
As anyone from Iowa with a functioning television can tell you, the state’s voters were simply bombarded with Obama commercials. It seems pretty obvious that money and consultants (the crafters of political "message") mattered a great deal as far as the super-wealthy Obama campaign was concerned.
According to the celebrated and slow-witted centrist Brooks on the PBS News Hour last Friday, it was Obama’s message alone that resonated with more than a third of the state’s Democratic caucus attendees, regardless of “money, and consultants.”
Not likely. (During the same News Hour slot, Brooks actually found it necessary inform PBS viewers that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is “not a socialist”).
For what it’s worth, this Iowa caucus-goer (yours truly)attended numerous candidate events and consistently found that Edwards’ message and stump speech was stronger and better than Obama’s in person — a much more powerful, passionate, and eloquent message of fighting corporate power for democratic progress. Edwards was by far and away the most effective campaign communicator both in candidate debates and in personal appearances. It wasn’t even close.
But he was unable to match the BaRockstar either in campaign advertisements or in free media attention given during national and news broadcasts and press accounts and endorsements. Throughout the Caucus campaign, Obama was given an astonishing and unmatched level of positive and lengthy media coverage. This reflected (i) corporate media’s deep disdain for anything that even slightly hints of populism and (ii) that media’s deep approval of Obama’s message of reconciliation across class, regional, racial, partisan and ideological lines(4).
Also worth noting, the Obama campaign’s superior financial resources allowed it to pour millions of dollars into the expensive operation called “data mining” – the generation and use of complex micro-targeted survey and marketing data to identify likely supporters and to expand the universe of likely caucus-goers. It is a chillingly effective tool in advancing the basic purpose of corporate-crafted elections: marketing candidate brand names (“Hope,” “Unity,” “Change”) to purchasers/voters and contributors/investors.
As usual, Brooks deals in false dichotomies. He does not understand money and class power and their roles in selecting Obama for the Democratic nomination. The truth is that he himself is a strategically placed conduit for the “deeply conservative”(5) Obama phenomenon (6).
Who knows what percentage of the delegates the partly (or is it formerly?) left presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (who despicably told his caucus-goers to give their votes to Obama) would have gotten if he’d been able to spend $9 million in Iowa. Edwards would have won Iowa handily if he’d enjoyed Obama’s resources.
Great White Hope: Forgive them For They Knew Not What They Did?
A radical correspondent of mine sent the following message after the inevitable data-mined Obama returns came in from Iowa: “That’s a shame about Obama. The media-manipulated kids and the misinformed and deluded ‘progressives’ were persuaded by his vague banalities and his corporate-crafted Telescreen imagery.”
Sure, but it’s more complicated. There is a remarkable amount of false progressive consciousness, misinformation, and laziness (failure to do basic homework) about the Barack Exelon ($194,750 donated to the B.O. campaign through the first three quarters of 2007*) Obama phenomenon. Many of his supporters falsely believe that he is some sort of left or populist and antiwar candidate. Such ignorance is naturally encouraged by the well-funded Obama campaign and is especially widespread among younger voters, who turned out in record numbers for the Iowa caucus. And some of the college kids in my precinct and town liked Barack Goldman Sachs ($369,078)Obama pretty much for the same reasons they like a Michael Jordan or a Jamie Fox: because “he’s cool” and it strikes them as vaguely transgressive to like a technically black personality.
Still, in my heavily academic, advantaged, coordinator-class precinct and town, a significant amount of support came from people who sense rather well that Obama is a faux-progressive preserver of race and class privilege. And they love that about him. They’re not deluded at all. He helps them feel good about being white and well-off. His promise of illusory change and pretend transformation is exactly what they are about. They have big houses, nice careers, and creeping concerns about all the poor black people that are starting to show up on the east side of Iowa city. Many of those truly disadvantaged blacks are refugees from the urban corporate-neoliberal racism of “global Chicago,” whose ruling (Richard M.)Daley regime has pushed poor African-Americans out of “global Chicago” and propelled Obama onto the national stage.
According to New York Times writer Kirk Johnson today (I am writing on Sunday, January 6), the lesson of Obama’s victory in Iowa is that “race didn’t matter” (7). Not true. In my experience during the Iowa campaign (going back to the summer), race mattered a great deal: it made many liberal and moderate whites excessively reluctant to take a hard and honest look at Obama’s corporate connections, imperial pronouncements, and general conservatism. It encouraged them to exaggerate how progressive he was and to identify any criticism of the BaRockstar phenomenon as racism. Two days before the great Caucasian Caucus, one unusually forthcoming Obama and self-critical supporter (the Obamanists were by far and away the least open to conversation and reflection) did tell me something I already knew: that Barack Lehman Bros ($229,090) Obama is a way for liberal and moderate whites to “pat themselves on the back for not being too prejudiced.” Obama’s race encouraged a lot of “progressives” not to do their homework on him or on the U.S. political culture he reflects.
Of course, it’s all premised on Barack JP Morgan Chase ($216,759) Obama being a "good [bourgeois and right-acting] black" – one who promises not to actually confront white supremacy in any meaningful way. Like the white-friendly media mogul and mass Obama marketer and ally Oprah Winfrey, Obama expresses and capitalizes on whites’ partial transcendence of “level-one” state-of-mind racism. At the same time, he reassures them he will honor their refusal acknowledge and confront the continuing power of deeper, “level two” state-of-being” – societal and institutional – racism in American life.
Barack Obama is a Great White Hope. He is perfectly suited and crafted to wrap establishment corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in rebel’s clothing. He advances the use of race (albeit in a new and “post-Civil Rights” kind of way) to advance the top-down business-class agenda (8).
A Liberal Academician Speaks: “I Hate Populism”
I should add that I gave my precinct neighbors repeated opportunities to gain some basic insight into the corporate, imperial, and authoritarian nature of the Barack Citigroup ($180,650) Obama phenomenon. I provided all of them with a careful, detailed, concise, and very polite 2-page summary of the key differences between the candidates. I published a 500-word Op-Ed summarizing this handout’s key points in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, which naturally endorsed Barack Citadel Investment ($166,600) Obama. Along with volunteers from the Service Employees international Union (SEIU), the United Steelworkers (USW), the Carpenters, and UNITE-HERE (staffers with organized labor, which Obama actually called the “special interest John Edwards claims to oppose”), I called and knocked on the doors of many hundreds of people across the city to discuss (among other things) the actually (believe this or not coming from the pen of a left anarchist) relevant left-right differences that emerged between the Edwards campaign and those of the “corporate Democrats”(Edwards’ Ralph Nader-applauded term)Obama and Hillary.
The privileged white Obamanists we spoke with were astonishingly unwilling to consider or engage any of the elementary facts that suggested Barack Time Warner ($142,718) Obama’s underlying “deep conservatism.” With a small number of interesting exceptions, they simply would not discuss any aspect of their allegiance to the supposed antiwar candidate Obama, who campaigned for pro-war Democrats during the 2006 congressional primaries (see Street 2007 for a useful summary of Obama’s not-so antiwar positions).
We were up against an almost (I repeat: I will take credit for costing him one delegate!) irresistible media-led cult and a significant degree of usually unspoken class elitism. I say “usually unspoken” because on a few occasions I had supporters of Barack Pritzker (his leading fundraiser is the Chicago multimillionaire and Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker) Obama explicitly tell me that they loathed Edwards because of his identification with class conflict of the wrong sort (from the bottom up). A progressive-looking (well, except for her $350,000 house) historian working for Biden (I believe she later allocated to Barack) actually said the following to me before I’d even started my campaign rap on her doorstep: “I hate populism. I can’t stand it.” The academic source of this comment saw the un-viable Biden and then Barack as safe Hamiltonian alternatives to the wretched laboring folk that “angry John” Edwards claimed to represent.
In any event, my precinct was warned. They will forget my dogged efforts when they become mystified by the perfidious corporate and imperial betrayals an Obama presidency is certain to inflict upon the Obama campaign’s populist and peaceful-sounding promises (and yes, dear reader, I know that an Edwards presidency would have its own versions of the same betrayal). Sadly, race was a big part of why they couldn’t listen.
The most cold-hearted people I saw in my caucus were the middle-class Kucinich folks – the few die-hards who were too alienated to acknowledge the basic fact that the naturally imperfect (from a Left perspective anyway) Edwards (9) was actually and substantively running to the portside of Hillary and Obama.
It did not seem that many of the Kucinich people (there may have been 18 or so to start with) followed their clownish leader’s shameful advice to support Obama. I spoke with one who did. I ticked off BaRockstar’s leading corporate contributors, including Exelon (secret to his pro-nuclear policy) and he just stared. He was too alienated to hear. I told him the top five ways in which Barack Council of Foreign Relations Obama (10) had supported the illegal, petro-imperialist occupation of Iraq. I talked to two other Kucinich kids about all the good progressive and working class activists who were working for Edwards and who would have been happy to tick off the top ten ways in which Edwards was better than Obama from a left perspective if they’d gone into the Edwards office just once during the previous six months.
I have no idea what the group did as a whole with their vote cards. Verbally, they just couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge that Ralph Nader was on to something in distinguishing Edwards from Obama, Inc. and Clinton, Inc. It was weird and gave me the biggest chill of the night(I have recieved some e-mails from Kucinich folks telling me it was "tactical" move). But that’s another story for another time. It has something to do with the question of whether you’ve ever worked in a factory or a mill or a mine or a slaughterhouse and if you’ve ever had a real and positive connection to the labor movement. The labor people (mostly SEIU and Steelworkers) I met in my precinct and across the state didn’t have to think twice about which side they were on in the immediate situation. It was as clear as day for them.
Veteran Left historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer, speaker and activist based in Iowa City, IA and Chicago, IL. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005). His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
* The firm-specific campaign finance data used in this essay is available at the Center for Response Politics’ “Open Secrets” Web Site: http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.asp?id=N00009638&cycle=2008.
1. Truth be told, I became (along with Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Ken Silverstein, David Sirota and many others) part of the homework for those who dared to consult substantive Left criticism of the Obama cult. See my following essays: “Barack Obama’s White Appeal: and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Black Agenda Report (June 20, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=34; “The Obama Illusion: The ‘Hopes of Slaves’ and the ‘Hamiltonian Ambitions’ of a Corporate-Imperial ‘Player,’” Z Magazine (February 2007); “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936;
“The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” ZNet (March 16, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12336; “Barack Obama’s Wonderful Wealth Primary,” ZNet (April 11, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12551;
“Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City,” ZNet (April 28, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12687;
“Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II U.S. Benevolence,” ZNet (May 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928;
“Barack Obama’s White Appeal and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Black Agenda Report (June 20, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=34; “Running Dog Obama,” ZNet (July 29, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13396;
“Obama’s Insults,” ZNet (October 3, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13940; “What Would Obama Have Done? Vote for the War and Lied About It – Just Like Hillary,” ZNet (October 13, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=14030;
"Barack Obama and the Audacity of Deception: Reflections on the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion" (Dec.6)
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=90&ItemID=14448; "The Obama Disease: Business Rule, ‘Common Ground,’ and P[l]aying the Fool"