"THE ESSENCE OF AMERICAN POLITICS"
The essence of American politics," the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens noted in his 1999 study of the Clintons, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful," Hitchens explained, "which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently elitist" (Hitchens 2000, pp. 17-18).
The Clinton administration was a perfect case study in the actualization of this ugly maxim. As George Bush the First was showing himself to be hopelessly out of touch with popular concerns, Bill Clinton pitched his successful White House bid around the notion of "putting people first. " Clinton then proceeded to construct a neoliberal presidency based on serving the rich and powerful and punishing the poor. That performance was richly consistent with the Reagan presidency, which demonstrated an especially perverse capacity for selling militantly regressive, corporate-plutocratic policy as the politics of the "little guy."
Hitchens’ caustic and accurate description of the U.S. political game is just as relevant today as it was when Reagan or Clinton held power. A big part of the reason of this is structural. Candidates cannot succeed in the big money winner-take-all U.S. electoral process without managing to balance popular support with backing from the stupendous concentrations of economic privilege that fund expensive, consultant- and media-driven campaigns and control "public" (corporate) communications and culture.
It’s an endless, viciously circular Catch-22. You can’t win without with without a good chunk of the populace willing to vote for you, but you can’t get your message out to the populace without support from the wealthy few and the corporate elite that controls so much of the nation’s economic, cultural and political activity. And you can’t attain ruling-class sponsorship if you appear to be too close (whatever your own personal class position) to the nation’s working-class majority.
The populism-elitism conundrum is across the electoral board. It’s written into the institutional DNA of U.S. politics. It touches every current presidential candidacy, either by shaping viable campaigns (Guliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain, Clinton II, Obama and Edwards) in conservative ways of by making openly Left campaigns (Kucinich, for example)inherently unviable.
"THE POPULIST LABEL DOESN’T FIT"
Curiously, however, dominant (corporate and "mainstream") U.S. media seems to want the citizenry to believe that Hitchens’ dreadful "essence of American politics" is a relevant problem only or at least above all for John Edwards. When it isn’t ignoring Edwards’ campaign to portray the Democratic primaries as a two-way contest between the two big-money candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (1), tha