avatar
“Mired In Delusion”: The New Hampshire Democratic Primary and the Abject Idiocy of U.S. Political Culture


 

Their task is to focus attention on the candidate’s “qualities,” not policies.  Is he a leader? A nice guy? Voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform…The regular vocation of these industries that sell candidates every few years is to sell commodities.  Everyone who has turned on a TV set is aware that business devotes enormous efforts to undermine the market of abstract theory, in which informed consumers make rational choices.  An ad does not convey information, as it would in a market system; rather, it relies on deceit and illusions to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.  Much the same methods are used to undermine democracy by keeping the electorate uninformed and mired in delusion.

 

 

- Noam Chomsky, 2004

 

 

      

POOR JOHN

 

Pity poor John Edwards.  He is the fading “big 3” Democratic presidential candidate whose detailed positions and fighting, “populist” outlook most closely match the relatively progressive views of mere citizens.  He seems to think that he could activate a latent rational and democratic political culture where voters make reasonable distinctions based on issues and policy preferences.

 

During last Saturday night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire, Edwards made the tactical decision to ally himself with Barack Obama and “change” and against the corporate “establishment” represented by Hillary and Bill Clinton.

 

Edwards knows that Obama is every bit as much a “corporate Democrat” as Hillary (1). But Edwards probably figured that he could only fight one such big money Democrat at a time and that Obama had more of the kinds of supporters he could turn his way. He figured he’d try to get rid of Hillary and get ready to duke it out with Barack on what it really means to stand for “change.” 

 

It was a strategy that might have stood to succeed on a level playing field.  Edwards is the most progressive of the three top Democratic contenders on all the major issues facing the candidates (2).  He has run to the democratic left of “the ultimate insider Clinton” (3) and the explicitly centrist and “deeply conservative” (4) Obama. 

 

But there are two key and related problems.  First, there’s no level playing field.  Edwards is forced to compete with vastly inferior financial resources and media favor.  Corporate election investors and dominant (corporate) media hate anything with the slightest hint of populism.  They prefer Barack “The Conciliator” Obama’s message of appeasement (5) and Hillary’s promise to get things done through and with the business and imperial powers that be.

 

 

“MIRED IN DELUSION”

 

Second, the dominant U.S political culture shaped by big money, corporate media, and professional campaign consultants isn’t primarily about issues and policy.  It’s more fundamentally about superficial candidate-centered commodification.

 

U.S. Public opinion on policy issues (often quite progressive) hardly matters, Noam Chomsky notes, when U.S. “elections are skillfully managed to avoid issues and marginalize the underlying population…freeing the elected leadership to serve the substantial people.”   Chomsky’s perceptive observation on the 2004 presidential election holds rich relevance for previous and subsequent “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” in the U.S. (6): 

 

“Bush and Kerry can run because they’re funded by similar concentrations of private power.  Both candidates understand that the election is supposed to stay away from issues.  They are creatures of the public relations industry, which keeps the public out of the election process.  Their task is to focus attention on the candidate’s “qualities,” not policies.  Is he a leader? A nice guy? Voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform.”

 

“The regular vocation of these industries that sell candidates every few years is to sell commodities.  Everyone who has turned on a TV set is aware that business devotes enormous efforts to undermine the market of abstract theory, in which informed consumers make rational choices.  An ad does not convey information, as it would in a market system; rather, it relies on deceit and illusions to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.  Much the same methods are used to undermine democracy by keeping the electorate uninformed and mired in delusion”

 

 

AN “EMOTIONALLY ACCESSIBLE” HILLARY

 

Why did Hillary (39%) foil both Obama (36%) and his hew new best friend John Edwards (17%) two nights ago in New Hampshire?  To be sure, part of it was a sense that Hillary was bringing up “real issues” like universal health insurance and federal college tuition assistance while “Mr. Hope” (Obama) spoke too often in eloquent but vague platitudes, coasting on image rather than substance.  Numerous voters expressed frustration with the BaRockstar’s lack of specificity along with skepticism about his qualifications for higher office (7). 

 

But another and significant part – probably the last-minute difference maker – had nothing to do with issues or policy at all.  It came when Mrs. Clinton almost started to cry in public. Hillary appears to have won considerable public sympathy and scored major points by getting misty-eyed when asked by a voter about the rigors of the campaign.

 

It also helped when she coyly said “that hurts my feelings” when ABC debate moderator Charles Gibson told her that many Americans didn’t like her.

All of these events helped the supposedly cold and aloof Hillary seem more “emotionally accessible” (New York Times writer Jodi Kantor).  It garnered sympathy from women voters, leading New York Times humorist Maureen Dowd to wonder if Mrs. Clinton was going to “cry her way back to the White House”(8).

 

Also working to Hillary’s advantage was a sense among many that Edwards and his fellow male Obama had “ganged up” on little Mrs. Clinton during the debate and a strange misogyny incident one day before the primary.  According to cynical John Chuckman in CounterPunch:

 

“About Clinton‘s unexpected (narrow) win in New Hampshire after polls said she would lose: I am convinced the only factor responsible for this was a brief demonstration at an appearance of hers by some oafs chanting about her getting back to the ironing board. The event, hardly noted nationally, is said to have been well broadcast in New Hampshire. Coming shortly before the vote, it undoubtedly caused a swing with women voters who generally like Obama. You might think those ironing-board oafs were executing a clever Republican plan to promote Clinton indirectly since I am sure she is seen as the more vulnerable ultimate opponent” (9)

 

 

“I WAS MOVED”

 

Here is part of the New York Times’ day-after account of what happened in New Hampshire:

 

“When she grew teary eyed, television played the moment as a faux pas.  But in New Hampshire, some supporters say they saw those tears and softened.  In the cavernous athletic hall here, backers said they saw in her teary eyes a reason to embrace this sometimes formal candidate.”

 

“‘I was moved,’ Barvara Arning, a retired teacher from Millford said. ‘I thought it was very sincere.  She was in control and speaking with emotion.  That’s fine with me’” (10).

 

While listening to a National Public Radio talk show last Wednesday I heard a New Hampshire woman say that she voted for Hillary because Edwards and Obama had tried to “intimidate a woman” (the meek little Hillary Clinton) during the debate and because too many male media commentators refer to Mrs. Clinton by her first name. The woman was unimpressed when one of the NPR commentators made the accurate observation that senator Clinton’s campaign has chosen to put “HILLARY” on its candidates’ buttons, signs, stickers, and Web site! “I’m a professional woman,” the lady from Hampshire said, “and I’ve sat through many a meeting where the men refer to you by your first name but introduce each other by their last names.  A lot of women feel the same way and I think that’s a big part of why they voted for Senator Clinton last night.” 

 

Oh that’s nice.  No boring policy stuff there. Nothing about Hillary’s refusal to embrace a basic timetable for the eventual withdrawal of America’s troops from illegally invaded Mesopotamia.

 

Tell it to an Iraqi woman who has lost daughters in War Hawk Hillary’s invasion of Iraq – the criminal oil occupation she still refuses to apologize for authorizing and funding over and over again.

 

Hillary was the “victim” of “attack” by big bad John and Barack?  Well, there are different levels of victimization.  There are political attacks that take place between elites during candidate debates and then there are deadly, mass-murderous attacks by great empires (e.g., the U.S.) on the women and children of poor nations.

 

Is Ms. Arning “moved” by the tears of the millions who have seen their livelihoods and material security destroyed by the Clintons’ regressive corporate-neoliberal agenda, including the passage of NAFTA and welfare “reform” (elimination) and by the Clinton administration’s privileging of deficit reduction and military spending over poverty reduction and social needs?

 

Mrs. Clinton’s onetime colleague Marian Wright Edeldman was sufficiently “moved” by the Clinton welfare assault to end her friendship with Hillary.

 

What about the tears of the parents of the more than 500,000 Iraqi children killed by the Clintons’ vicious “economic sanctions” regime during the first half of the 1990s – what Bill and Hillary’s Secretary of State called “a price worth paying” for advance of the United States’ inherently noble foreign policy objectives?

 

      

“IN A SANE WORLD”

      

Listening to the disgruntled professional woman from New Hampshire on NPR yesterday, I was reminded of some very prescient political prose penned by the perceptive liberal-populist writer Laura Flanders.  Here is a Flanders passage that merits lengthy quotation, particularly in the wake of Hillary’s apparent success in exploiting gender to advance the corporate and military agenda:

 

“Hillary’s task is to dress her establishment self up in just enough rebel’s clothing to pacify the critics before the primary, and then win over enough alienated voters in November – probably by persuading them that she’ll change some things, but not too many”…

       

“Hillary Clinton would not be as well-positioned to save the Democratic Party from its base if women in the United States had fewer reasons to be infuriated.  As it is, the junior senator from New York just may be the party leaders’ last best chance for rescue from the angry and disgruntled Democratic voters. At a time when the anti-war, anti-free trade Democrats are crying out for substantive change in their party and in the country, Clinton is able to cast herself as an agent of that change, even as her record and policies promise, above all, cautious continuity.  It’s a feat made possibly by the single fact that Clinton stands to be the first woman elected US president. In a less sexist world, it’d be hard for Clinton to present herself as any sort of political insurgent.  Her husband is the country’s favorite living presidents, and her campaign coffers are bulging with establishment dollars. In a sane world, this two-term senator from New York would be the ultimate insider.  The US media, however, can always be relied on to single out a woman for ‘outsider’ treatment, and Hillary Clinton is no exception” (11).

 

Hillary’s status as the person with a strong chance ever to become the first female U.S. president helps her seem like a defiant challenger to political business as usual.

      

And while it’s fine enough for Mrs. Clinton to contrast her issue-specificity with Obama’s ever more irritatingly sentimental call for Hope and Change, it is interesting and disturbing to note the best and most detailed “issues” candidate of the “big 3” (Edwards) is already being pushed offstage by the corporate media Gods and the lords of campaign finance.

 

It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

 

 

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); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005).

 

 

NOTES

 

 

1.  See Ryan Lizza, “The Legacy Problem,” The New Yorker (September 17, 2007), read at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/17/070917fa_fact_lizza?printable=true.  Near the end of the Iowa campaign, Obama actually ran to the right of Senator Clinton on domestic policy.  See Greg Sargent, “In an Interview with TPM, Krugman Ramps Up Case Against Obama,” TPM Election Central (December 19, 2007), read at http://tpmelectioncentral.com/2007/12/krugman_speaks_about_his_battle_with_obama_campaign.php

 

2. See Paul Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies,” New York Times, 17 December, 2007; “Ralph Nader Talks About His Favorite Presidential Candidates,” MSNBC Hardball with Chris Matthews; Jesse Jackson Sr., Most Democratic Candidates Are Ignoring African Americans,” Chicago Sun Times , 27 November,  2007; Paul Street, “Angry John av. KumbayObama,,” Slept On Magazine (December 28 2007), read at http://www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=1234.; Paul Street, “Beyond the ‘Deeply Conservative’ (Obama) Fantasy,” Iowa City Press Citizen, 29 December, 2007, read at http://www.presscitizen.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071229/OPINION02/712290303/1018

 

3. Liberal journalist Laura Flanders’ recent description in Laura Flanders, The Contenders [NY: Seven Stories, 2008])

 

4. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator,” in The New Yorker, May 7, 2007).

 

5. MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator;” Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies.”

 

6. Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: city Lights, 2007), pp. 97-98.

 

7. Michael Powell, “Retooled Campaign and Loyal Voters Add Up,” New York Times, 9 January 2008, p. A14.

 

8.  Jodi Kantor, “A Show of Emotion That Reverberated Beyond the Campaign,” New York Times, 9 January 2008, p. A14; Maureen Dowd, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” New York Times, 9 January, p.A21

 

9. John Chuckman, “Pardon My Laughter,” Counterpunch (January 9, 2008).

(Michael Powell, “Retooled Campaign and Loyal Voters Add Up,” New York Times, 9 January 2008, p. A14.

 

10. Powell, “Retooled Campaign.”

 

11.  Flanders, “Hillary Clinton,” in Flanders et al., The Contenders, p. 9.

 

Leave a comment