"There is a lot of talk right now," Noam Chomsky told David Barsamian last January, "about how the United States is a divided country. We have to bring it together, ‘red states’ and ‘blue states.’ In fact, it is a divided country, but not in the way that’s being discussed. It’s divided between the public and the power systems, the government and the corporate system." Intentionally or not, Chomsky here puts his finger on one of the key ways in which "the [Barack] Obama phenomenon is a noxious and reactionary political disease.
Right now," Chomsky rightly adds, "the major fissure [in the U.S. ] is the basic split between the public and the country’s real power sectors. Both of the political parties and the business sector are well to the right of the population on a host of major issues…" (Chomsky 2007a, p. 95).
America ‘s "most popular politician" Barack Obama has hitched his campaign on a munificent pledge to save the Republic by overcoming the terrible divisions between "red state" (white-patriarchal and more rural and evangelical and militarist) Republicans and "blue state" (more multi-colored, feminist, gay-friendly and urban-cosmopolitan) Democrats. He’s going to lead us into a glorious future of countrywide cohesion by transcending the frightening and bitter "partisan" discord inherited (he claims to think) from those awful (late) Nineteen Sixties. That’s when the angry, countercultural and doctrinaire New Left cleared the way for its supposed moral equivalent (Obama thinks) the New Right. Yes, the nasty (late) Sixties nearly scared nice America to death. According to the good book of Obama, we’ve been crippled by horrific "culture wars" and related "partisan" conflict ever since we lost our moral and political center in the Age of Aquarius (Obama 2006).
The "HOPE" promised by the BaRockStar is that he will be the first "post-baby-boom" leader to bring us all back together. He is the generational redeemer to guide us on the path to the rediscovery of our shared and glorious "American values." He is going to restore the Camelot of noble national unity and meaning beyond (supposedly) petty and dysfunctional squabbles over abortion, drugs, race, guns, gender, gay rights, imperialism/militarism, and the like.
Specially chosen for this great mission (on a global scale as well) by his distinctive multi-cultural background (he is the son of a white women from Kansas and a black man from Kenya and was raised by white grandparents in Hawaii and spent four years growing up in Indonesia – hooray!), he is going to un-part the Red State/Blue State sea and restore the nation’s "common ground." He is the affirmative, non-threatening but all-knowing answer to Rodney King’s question: "can’t well all just get along?" He is going to heal us, binding rich and poor, black and white, "oppressed" and "oppressor" (Obama 2006, p. 68) together in ties of shared "empathy" and agreement.
In other words, he’s a narcissistic and reactionary pain in the ass – and a tool of the business class.
CORPORATE-FRIENDLY "COMMON GROUND"
As a part of his great post-Sixties Kumbaya project, Obama takes special pride in his "pragmatic" readiness to "reach out" to Republicans to "get things done." He inveighs against the "Tom Hayden wing of the Democratic Party" and tells progressive Democrats they would be "playing chicken with the troops" if they dared not to fund the George W. Bush administration’s monumentally illegal, brazenly petro-imperialist and inherently mass-murderous occupation of Mesopotamia . He repeatedly votes to fund the criminal invasion and backs "mainstream" (pro-war) Democratic candidates against progressive antiwar candidates in the 2006 congressional primaries. After their attainment of a majority in the Congress in November of 2006, he warns Democrats against being seen as working against the remarkably unpopular and arch-criminal Cheney-Bush administration. He insists on claiming that the invasion of Iraq was launched and has been fought with the "best of [democratic] intentions."
He votes for a business-driven federal "tort reform" bill that rolls back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress from misbehaving corporations. He joins Republicans in advancing the patently false claim of Wall Street and the Bush administration that Social Security is facing an imminent crisis that must be fixed through drastic measures. He sounds like Mitt Romney or Rudy Guliani in criticizing his fellow Democrats’ determination to "impose" universal health care through supposedly oppressive "government mandates." He joins the more reactionary of the two business parties in supporting the expansion of the regressive North American Free Trade Agreement ( NAFTA) to Peru . He goes to NASDAQ to absurdly tell the lords of global finance that "your work [is] part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America . I think the problem is that no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal."
He criticizes efforts to muster support for filibusters against the appointment of reactionary Supreme Court justices certain to assault civil rights and liberties. He speaks on friendly terms to far-right Evangelical "Christian" audiences and tours in the South with an openly gay-bashing preacher.
THE INVISIBLE AND FORGOTTEN CONSENSUS
This is interesting "common ground" for the self-described "progressive" Obama to uphold. In pursuit of his purported goal of mending the nation’s agonizing fractures, he is tilting to the right side of an all-too narrow party spectrum that is more about tactical differences within the governing class than overcoming the nation’s most fundamental division – that between its populace and its power elite.
There’s a very different sort of officially invisible "common ground" already in place at the American grassroots. The popular consensus is already there to be tapped by a genuinely progressive politician who dared ( John Edwards perhaps?) to mobilize the people against the economic aristocracy. The nation’s working-class majority has long supported a host of fundamentally progressive, social-democratic and peace-oriented policy positions seen as essentially irrelevant by the nation’s governing class. The policies supported by most Americans include government-mandated universal health care, protection of the existing Social Security system, significant and regular increases in the minimum wage, strong environmental protections, fair global trade and investment rules, respect for international law and institutions, the privileging of domestic social spending and health over military expenditures, adequate and fair spending on public schools, reduction in the influence that corporations hold over U.S. government, reduction of big-money special-interest influence on politics, and (by the way) the rapid removal of U.S. forces from illegally occupied Iraq. None of this opinion seems to matter all that much under the rules of American "dollar democracy," the "best that money can [and did] buy" and that dominant (so-called "mainstream") corporate media can control (Chomsky 2006, pp. 205-250).
While U.S. officials lecture governments and people abroad on the virtues of popular governance, their own corporate-captive imperial "homeland" is torn by a depressing "democracy deficit" reflecting the stranglehold of concentrated wealth and power on U.S. politics and policy. The "bipartisan U.S. elite" (Faux 2006, pp. 49-75, 92-107, and passim) deepens "the disconnect in American democracy" (Chomsky 2007b, pp. 97-100) with imperial adventures that exacerbate domestic inequality and are opposed by most Americans. If anyone cares, the adventures are also opposed by large majorities in nations targeted for supposed U.S. "liberation" and "democracy promotion."
TAKING UP RIGHT-WING TALKING POINTS ON SOCIAL SECURITY AND HEALTH CARE
Obama’s purported determination to go beyond factional and ideological differences can lead him into some ugly policy corners. As leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observes in an opinion-editorial that exposes Obama’s recent Social Security panic-mongering, "inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security – declaring that the program as we know it can’t survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers – is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are." Unfortunately, Krugman notes, "the ‘everyone’ who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided" (Krugman 2007a).
The notion that a major Social Security catastrophe looms in the foreseeable future is a corporate and Republican myth disseminated through a highly sophisticated propaganda effort that "compares well," Chomsky notes, "with the government-media campaign to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to their survival" (Chomsky 2006, p. 248; Baker and Weisbrot 2001).
As for the supposed evil of "government-mandated" health care, Chomsky makes some fascinating observations in his book Failed States (p. 225):
"A large majority of the [ U.S. ] population supports extensive government intervention [in the health care market], it appears. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that ‘over 2/3 of all Americans thought the government should guarantee "everyone the best and most advanced health care that technology can supply;"’ a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 80 percent regard universal health care as ‘more important than holding down taxes’; polls reported in Business Week found that 67% of Americans think it is a good idea to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27 5 dissenting; the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans favor the ‘U.S. government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes’ (30 percent opposed). By the late 1980s, more than 70 percent of Americans ‘thought health care should be a constitutional guarantee,’ while 40 percent ‘thought it already was.’"
Obama’s recent effort to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on health care by taking up "right-wing talking points" (Krugman) against "government mandates" graphically highlight the harsh, business-friendly limits of his oft-proclaimed and much celebrated "progressivism." Sounding like a good Republican criticizing "socialized medicine," Obama criticized his leading competitors for requiring all adults to be insured even if they don’t want to be. This terrible "mandate" struck Obama as government coercion and as un-enforceable short of draconian state regulation and penalization. Obama also claimed that his health care plan made a more appropriately efficient, taxpayer-friendly emphasis on cost reduction than those of his rivals.
But, as Krugman points out, Edwards’ and Clintons’ plans include equally impressive cost control measures. Difficulties of enforcement "[don't] mean we shouldn’t have laws," Krugman rightly argued, adding that Edwards proposes a simple and non-punitive way to make sure that everyone is covered: automatic enrollment (without punishment) of all people lacking proof of insurance when they file income taxes or receive health care.
Obama’s supposed concern with imaginary government oppression hides a reactionary promise to let a few people game the health care system at the expense of the common good. As Krugman explains:
"Why have a [health insurance] mandates? The whole point of a universal health insurance system is that everyone pays in, even if they’re currently healthy, and in return everyone has insurance coverage if and whey they need it."
"And it’s not just a matter of principle. As a practical matter, letting people opt out if they don’t feel like buying insurance would make insurance substantially more expensive for everyone else."
"Here’s why: under the Obama plan, as it now stands, healthy people could choose not to but insurance – then sign up for it if they developed health problems later. Insurance companies couldn’t turn them away, because Mr. Obama’s plan, like those of his rivals, requires that insurers offer the same policy to everyone."
"As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care" (Krugman 2007b).
PLAYING AND PAYING THE FOOL
Krugman thinks that Obama’s politically motivated insistence on trying to "transcend partisanship" by "find[ing] common ground where none exists" sometimes makes "a fool" out of the junior senator from Illinois. "What Washington means by bipartisanship," Krugman rightly observes, "is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want" (Krugman 2007a).
That’s a good point but Krugman is too kind. Obama’s efforts to rise "above ideology" and find "common ground" with Republicans might seem dysfunctional and "foolish" from a populist or New Deal (Krugman’s) standpoint given genuinely progressive Democrats’ lack of shared assumptions and agendas with regressive Republicans and the fact that most Americans actually support progressive/social-democratic positions on issues like health care. But Obama’s "bipartisanship" is functional from the perspective of the elite business actors who have vetted Obama and found him to be a trustworthy ruling-class team member beneath his populace-pleasing rhetoric about "changing the system in Washington " to "work for us" (Silverstein 2006).
His claim to transcend party differences is also smart strategy for a power-hungry candidate determined to rake in the enormous big money election investments that he requires to defeat the Hillary machine and the more genuinely grassroots John Edwards campaign. After all, "conservative" policy outcomes are often radically regressive victories for "the business community." And Obama’s eagerness to work with plutocratic talking points is certainly calculated to deepen his business support in the critical realm of campaign funding. As Ken Silverstein learned from an anonymous Washington lobbyist last year," big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’" The lobbyist posed an instructive query to Silverstein: "what’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’" (Silverstein 2006, p. 40).
Obama’s "playing" is paying off. Obama has been richly rewarded for playing "the fool" on issues like tort law, Social Security, and national health insurance. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the 2008 Obama presidential campaign has received nearly $5 million dollars from securities and investment firms and $866,000 from commercial banks through October of 2007. Obama’s top contributor is Goldman Sachs (provider of $369,078 to Obama ’08), identified by CRP investigators as "a major proponent of privatizing Social Security as well as legislation that would essentially deregulate the investment banking/securities industry." Of his top twenty election investors, fully eight are securities and investment firms: Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros. (number 2 at $229,090), J.P. Morgan Chase and Co. (# 4 at $216,759), Citadel Investment Group (#7 at 4166,608), UBS AG ($146,150), UBS-America ($106,680), Morgan Stanley ($104,421), and Credit Suisse Group ($92,300). The last two firms are also known to be leading privatization advocates (Center for Responsive Politics, "Presidential Candidate Barack Obama," at
According to the CRP, Obama’s presidential run was assisted by more than $2 million from the health care sector and nearly $400,000 from the insurance industry through October of 2007 (Center for Responsive Politics, "Obama’s Leading Contributors by Industry," available online at www.opensecrets.org/ politicians/allindus.asp?CID=N00009638 ).Obama received $708,000 from medical and insurance interests between 2001 and 2006 (Center for Responsive Politics, " Barack Obama Career Profile," http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/ allindus.asp?CID=N00009638 ). His wife Michelle, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, was until a recently a "Vice President for Community and External Affairs" at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a position that paid her $273,618 in 2006 (Sweet 2007).
As any good historian of the late 19th and early 20th century (" Progressive Age") United States knows, the word "progressive" can elicit numerous diverse and often contradictory shades of sociopolitical and ideological meaning. If Obama is a "progressive," as he repeatedly describes himself in his remarkably conservative 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (see Street 2007f), he is one of a particularly corporate-friendly and power-worshipping type. He stands to the right of John Edwards’ more genuinely and substantively populist variant of progressivism (Street 2007a-2007d) and possibly now even to the right of Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile political analysts are hard at work trying to give an adequate name to the political disease that is the Obama phenomenon. My latest attempt is too unwieldy: I call Obama’s purported effort to rise above the factional, ideological, and social (including racial – see Street 2007e) divisions of the past a particularly virulent strain of "pseudo-progressive-post-modern/post-Civil-Rights-corporate-neoliberal-polyarchic-Bonparatism." Sorry – I’ll get back with a better term, if necessary, after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.
Veteran radical historian Paul L. Street 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); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America ( New York: Routledge, 2005); and "Working in the Yards: A History of Class Relations in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry, 1886-1955" (Ph.D thesis, Binghamton University, 1993). Paul can be reached at [email protected].
Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot 2001. Social Security: The Phony Crisis ( Chicago , 2001)
Noam Chomsky 2006. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy ( New York : Metropolitan, 2006).
Noam Chomsky 2007a. What We Say Goes ( New York : Metropolitan, 2007).
Noam Chomsky 2007b. Interventions [ San Francisco 2007
Jeff Faux 2006. The Global Class War: How America ‘s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What We Can do to Get it Back ( New York , 2006).
Paul Krugman 2007a. "Played for a Sucker," New York Times, 16 November, 2007.
Paul Krugman 2007 b. "Mandates and Mudslinging, New York Times, 30 November, 2007.
Barack Obama 2006. The Audacity of Hope (New York: Henry Crown, 2006).
Ken Silverstein 2006. "Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harpers, November 2006.
Paul Street 2007a. "John Edwards and Dominant Media’s Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy," ZNet Magazine
( June 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13177.
Paul Street 2007b. "Obama’s Insults," Empire and Inequality Report No. 25, ZNet Magazine (October 3, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13940 .
Paul Street 2007c. "Obama’s Role: To Confuse and Divide the Progressive Base," Iowa Campaign Report, ZNet Magazine (October 20, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=14081
Paul Street 2007d. "Establishment Politics in ‘Rebel’s Clothing’: Corporate Power, Populist Pandering, and the Ironies of Identity in the Democratic Presidential Race," ZNet Magazine (November 18, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=90&ItemID=14316.
Paul Street 2007e. "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
Paul Street 2007f. "Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power: a Revew of Barack Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope’," " ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936
Lynn Sweet 2007. "Barack and Michelle Obama Earned $991,296 in 2006," Chicago Sun Times, 16 April 2007