One month before the 2012 presidential election, the “Public” Broadcasting System’s investigative journalism show Frontline last week broadcast a show purporting to “present the definitive portraits of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.” The show, bearing the dramatic title “The Choice,” provided sensitive, highly personal biographies of the two official contenders, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Families of Origin, Marriages, School Days, and Drugs
“The Choice” was as remarkable for what it left out as it was for what it included. It was loaded with details about each candidate’s family histories and marriages and past careers and campaigns. It reported at length and quite intelligently about Obama’s conflicted, multi-racial and peripatetic childhood, his youthful drug use, his absent parents, his alcoholic grandparents, his multicultural friendship group at Occidental College, his deepening seriousness at Columbia University, his centrist Harvard Law career, his early romance with Michelle Robinson, and his early victories and one crushing defeat in black Chicago politics. Frontline reported deeply and sensitively on Romney’s close childhood relationship with his rich powerful father (onetime moderate Republican Michigan governor and presidential candidate George Romney), Romney’s Mormon background, his near-death in an automobile accident in France, his elite private school upbringing, his college days and pro-Vietnam War politics at Stanford, his early marriage to Ann, Ann Romney’s struggle with multiple sclerosis, his years at Harvard Business School, his rise to prominence and success at the Wall Street firm Bain Capital, his unsuccessful bid to unseat Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, and his brief tenure as the Governor of Massachusetts.
All of this was very impressively researched and presented. At the same time, “The Choice,” was deafeningly silent about the different yet all too similar policy agendas of the two business-backed candidates and about the massive amounts of elite money that have paid for both of the campaigns in what has become by far and away the most expensive U.S. election ever. By deleting policy, Frontline suggests that only real choice on offer is whether one wants to the White House to be occupied by (A) a fantastically rich white male who was born into great wealth and power and the Mormon Church and was very close to this father or (B) an often lonely half-black man born into a broken, middle-class family who smoked a lot of weed in high school and had almost no contact with his father, was raised for many years by his white grandparents in Honolulu, and wandered the streets of Harlem before finding a home and a political base in Chicago’s black South Side?
Beyond the standard shrieking of Romper Room radicals who insist that the two parties and their candidates’ agendas are “indistinguishable” and “the same” – totally or almost completely without any relevant difference – there are policy divergences that ought to matter to any serious progressive who actually cares about his fellow human beings and livable ecology. The G.O.P. has become yet ever more “publicly committed to dismantling and destroying whatever progressive legislations and social welfare has been won by popular struggles over the past century” (Noam Chomsky). Writing of the Republican Party four years ago (in an important left-liberal critique of the U.S. political order that did not spare the Democrats),  political scientist Sheldon Wolin observed in 2008 that “It is hard to imagine any power more radical [than the G.O.P.] in its determination to undo the gains of the past century.”
That judgment is no less relevant four years later, to say the least. Nobody, probably not even Mitt Romney, knows if Romney actually means what he says on the campaign trail. But if the Republicans complete their takeover of Congress – a possibility – next November, a President Romney would face overriding pressure to act on what he says. And here’s some of what he’s claimed he would do as president:
- immediately okay the disastrous Keystone Pipeline
- end federal tax supports for wind power
- further escalate fracking and offshore drilling
- let the states re-criminalize abortion
- seek a constitutional amendment outlawing new same-sex marriages
- seek a constitutional amendment requiring two-third congressional majorities for tax increases
- replace unemployment benefits with unemployment “savings accounts.”
- “double Guantanamo”
- officially re-authorize torture
- deport undocumented aliens en masse
- start a new Cold War with “our main strategic enemy” – nuclear Russia
- significantly deepen inequality with further giant tax cuts for the wealthy few
- further gut financial regulations
- further cut Food Stamps, Medicaid and what’s left of public family cash assistance
Romney’s selection of “Tea Party” favorite Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate amounts to a de facto endorsement of Ryan’s plans to voucher-ize Medicare and to thoroughly bankrupt what’s left of the government’s capacity for social expenditure – this while acting to significantly increase the upward distribution of wealth and income.
Still, the nation’s two dominant political organizations are more alike than different in any meaningful world-historical sense. A recent Black Agenda Report column by the left activist and commentator Bruce Dixon uncovered no less than 15 critical political and policy matters on which Obama and Romney basically agree behind the official media story line of an epic contest between two “very different” and indeed “sharply polarized” parties and candidates. Dixon’s list includes the following:
- ‘The federal government should NOT enact any sort of WPA-style program to put millions of people back to work.’
- ‘Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are “entitlements” that need to be cut to relieve “the deficit.”’
- ‘Climate change treaties and negotiations that might lead to them should be avoided at all costs.’
- The corporatist investor-rights North American Free Trade Agreement is ‘such a great thing it really should be extended to Central and South America and the entire Pacific rim.’
- ‘Banksters and Wall Street speculators deserve their bailouts and protection from criminal liability, but underwater and foreclosed homeowners deserve nothing.’
- Racist imperialism should march on in the Middle East: ‘Palestinians should be occupied, dispossessed and ignored. Iran should be starved and threatened from all sides…. Cuba should be embargoed…. Black and brown babies and their parents, relatives and neighbors should be bombed with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and similar places.’
- Racist imperialism must march on in Africa: ‘Africa should be militarized, destabilized, plundered and where necessary, invaded by proxy armies like those of Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi or Kenya, or directly by Western air and ground forces, as in Libya’
- ‘US Presidents can kidnap citizens of their own or any nation on earth from anyplace on the planet for torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial or murder them and neighboring family and bystanders at will’
- ‘Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve “energy independence”.’
- ‘The FCC should not and must not regulate telecoms to ensure that poor and rural communities have access to internet, or to guarantee network neutrality.’
- ‘There really ARE such things as “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy.”’
- ‘Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve “energy independence.”’
- ‘Immigrants must be jailed and deported in record numbers.’
- ‘No Medicare for All. Forget about it eliminating the Medicare age requirement so that all Americans would qualify.’
- ‘No minimum wage increases for you, no right to form a union, no right to negotiate or strike if you already have a union, and no enforcement or reform of existing labor laws.’
- ‘The 40 year war on drugs must continue…mention of the prison state is unthinkable.’
The Republicans and Democrats are not completely identical or interchangeable, but Dixon easily provides a chilling short list of areas of common ground between the two dominant reigning parties’ standard bearers.
It’s been like this for very many election cycles, which is no small part of why many U.S. voters’ candidate “choices” end up having nothing or little to do with policy. With the contests all-too drained of substantive policy meaning, voters commonly select the candidate who seems most “likeable” to them, the one with whom they’d most like to have a beer or watch television. The managed infantilization of the electorate along these lines is encouraged by campaign advertisements that sell candidates like a new brand of deodorant and media commentary that focuses on things like Joe Biden’s facial expressions, the shape of Obama’s cheekbones, and Romney’s alleged physical awkwardness.
With its failure to mention policy at all – either in terms of difference or elite consensus between the candidates – Frontline’s “The Choice” is little more than a more sophisticated, elite-targeted version of a more vulgar national electoral culture that elevates candidate character and biography over substantive matters of policy.
The Wealth Primary
“The Choice’s” deletion of political money is intimately related to its avoidance of policy and particularly to its evasion of the ruling class policy consensus between the candidates. The leading theme in the dominant media’s relentless election coverage and commentary is as usual the horse race: which of the two candidates will prevail and why. Though Frontline ignored the topic, it is permissible in the context of that narrow discussion to talk about the role that the obscene quantity of corporate and financial cash “the 1%” invests in the election may play in shaping the outcome. What cannot be discussed to any significant degree is the role that big money and much more in the corporate arsenal plays in making sure that “we the people” and democracy will lose the election regardless of which candidate gives a victory speech next November. Progressive measures and demands like Medicare for All, real progressive taxation, full employment/public works, mortgage relief, the re-legalization of union organizing, a peace dividend, ecological retrofitting, de-incarceration – all of this and much more is simply pronounced “off the table” of serious election discussion. Never mind that the majority of American citizens have long supported such decent and democratic policies and demands.
But so what? Who cares? When the television network ABC’s evening national news show has turned to the presidential race – its main story (the same goes for the rest of the dominant media) for months now – its puts up a bright slogan or logo over the left shoulder of the news anchor. “Your Vote, Your Voice,” the logo reads. And when speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) last July, Vice President Joe Biden felt it necessary to “remind” that predominantly black civil rights organization “of one thing. Remember,” Biden said, “what this at its core was all about – why this organization at its core was all about. It was about the franchise. It was about the right to vote. Because when you have the right to vote, you have the right to change things.”
NAACP history aside, how true is Biden’s final assertion given the existence of what the campaign finance researchers and activists John Bonifaz and Jamie Raskin called “the wealth primary” – the requirement that candidates either personally possess stupendous wealth or enjoy strong funding connections to those with such wealth to pay for ever more expensive campaigns? Those with the financial resources required for serious contention and victory in America’s prolonged “winner-take-all” elections system are hardly in the business of paying for genuinely public-oriented and democratic office-seekers who genuinely wish to reflect majority populist and progressive sentiments in governments. As progressive journalist noted in a fall 2006 Harper’s report on the pre-presidential Obama phenomenon, “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform.”
“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein reported, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”
The title of Silverstein’s article bears mention: “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine” – a topic that was completely and glaringly ignored in Frontline’s account of Obama’s remarkable rise from dormitory dope-smoking and the Illinois legislature to national prominence and power.
Consistent with that title and the lobbyist’s candid comment, Obama received record-setting corporate and Wall Street contributions in the 2008 election and then as president conducted something of a tutorial on who really rules and runs America beyond the charade of popular governance and quadrennial, candidate-centered and elite-funded electoral extravaganzas – the people who own the country. 
The wealth primary has long imposed deep plutocratic scars on America’s dollar-democracy, of course, but the problem is worse now than ever. Between the congressional contests and the Presidential campaign, the 2012 elections are on track to cost an all-time record of more than $6 billion. As across the last three decades, a tiny and disproportionately wealthy slice of the populace (significantly smaller than just “the 1%”) will account for a wildly disproportionate share of the dollars required to feed the nation’s burgeoning “money and -media election complex” that has “effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States,” and “is now more definitional than any candidate or party—and…poses every bit as much of a threat to democracy as the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned us a half-century ago..”
The problem isn’t just money per se. As the liberal Sunlight Foundation noted in a major campaign finance study titled The Political One Percent of One Percent last year, “It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent who account for almost a quarter of all individual campaign contributions…We know that money is not equally given by all Americans. There are very few Americans who can afford to write the kind of big checks that candidates depend on” (emphasis added).
The problem has been getting worse over time. “Over the past 20 years,” Sunlight reported, “ the $10,000-plus donors have accounted for an ever bigger share of political contributions….Everybody — not just candidates — leans harder on the wealthy as campaign spending escalates. Parties want to be able to tap into donor networks of people who can give $10,000, $20,000 to the party.” Within “the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” Sunlight found, the most elite donors, those with corporate ties, give on average $29,000 per election cycle – “more than what half of Americans earn in a single year.”