The Plutocrats Keep Their Shirts

It is tempting, perhaps, to see the 2012 presidential election as a triumph for ordinary people over concentrated wealth. There’s some basis for that conclusion. After all, Obama formally ran for re-election on the notions that the rich need to be taxed more, that Medicare and Social Security should to be protected against corporate privatization, and that government has a positive role to play in creating opportunity and security for all Americans, not just the well-off. The president’s progressive-sounding campaign was launched in a December 2011 campaign speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. There, Obama referred to economic inequality as “the defining issue of our time,” identified himself with “99 percent values,” and referred, without criticism, to the “people who are occupying the streets of New York and other cities”—this, even after his Homeland Security Department helped coordinate the forced dismantling of Occupy encampments across the country.


Thanks in part to such populist-sounding rhetoric and to his related success in portraying Mitt Romney as the out-of-touch personification and agent of “the 1 percent,” exit polls show that Obama won 63 percent of voters from households that received less than $30,000 in income in 2011 and 60 percent of voters from households receiving less than $50,000. The president’s success with non-affluent voters was no small matter in a savagely unequal nation where one-sixth of the population lives below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, where one-third are at or below 150 percent of that level and where nearly half the population is officially low-income.


For his part, Mitt Romney (who got 55 percent of the votes from households “earning” more than $250,000) seemed straight out of central casting when it came to helping Obama pose as a man of the people. With Romney as its standard-bearer, the Wall Street elite ran one of its own, pushing a radically regressive agenda calling, above all, for reduced regulations and taxes on the wealthy few and their corrupt and environmentally toxic business order. Besides advancing the privatization of Medicare and Social Security, the Romney-Ryan ticket promised to drastically cut Medicaid, leaving 27 million poor Americans without health insurance while handing the rich nearly $5 trillion in tax reductions.


Romney added insult to promised injury. Consistent with his campaign statement that “It’s not my job to worry about” the poor, Romney was caught on video telling wealthy donors that nearly half (“47 percent”) of the American population were lazy, government-dependent moochers who take no personal responsibility for their own lives.


Along the way, Romney out-raised Obama by more than 3 to 1 ($20 million to $6 million) with the securities and investment industry and by nearly 3 to 1 ($52 million to $19 million) with the finance, insurance, and real estate sector as a whole.


These differences in tone and funding led global business journalist Chrystia Freeland to write about the supposed great defeat suffered by the wealthy few. “Among the losers in the United States,” Freeland reported two days after the election, “are the super-rich, who spent unprecedented millions to evict…Obama from the White House. The investing class turned sharply and vociferously against the president many of them had supported in 2008,” Freeland announced. “On Tuesday night,” she declared, “the plutocrats lost their shirts.” The election’s outcome “means,” the esteemed liberal Harvard political scientist Jacob Hacker told Freeland, “that your vote matters. If you can mobilize your votes…that is a pretty strong antidote to the role of money in politics” (Chrystia Freeland, “Obama, the Super-Rich, and the Election,”, November 9, 2012).


Money Talks in Many Ways


But how accurate is this liberal take on Obama’s victory? Hacker may be right that Obama succeeded in rallying voters to counter Romney’s Wall Street money advantage when it came to determining the election’s outcome, but Hacker seems to ignore the role of corporate and Wall Street money in draining the election of serious issue and policy content (see Paul Street, “Elections 2012 v. Issues That Matter: Reflections on the Latest Quadrennial Extravaganza,” Z Magazine, December 2012). At the same time, Obama wouldn’t have succeeded in mobilizing voters without drinking deeply at the big money campaign finance well. He raised and spent $947 million and attended more elite fundraisers than his 5 predecessor incumbent presidents combined—200 by May 2012. The president wouldn’t have won without tapping the power of the advertising and marketing industry to conduct history’s most audacious and sophisticated voter marketing and data mining operation—a political market research and sales operation that left Romney’s handlers awestruck (see L. Gordon Crovitz, “Obama’s ‘Big Data’ Victory,” Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2012).


It is a mistake to reduce the role of money in American politics to campaign finance alone. Even in the “Citizens Defeated” era, campaign finance is just one among many ways in which the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) speaks. The many-sided methods and modes of corporate and financial control of society and politics include:


·      The flooding of the nation’s capital and the state capitals and municipal and county governments with an army of corporate lobbyists


·   Massive investment in public relations and propaganda to influence the beliefs and values of citizens and politicians on matters of interest to corporations


·   Ownership, monitoring, and management of mass media (including “entertainment” as well as pubic affairs news and commentary) for the same purpose


·   The placement of key corporate and finance personnel in top government positions


·   Capture of key positions in government regulatory agencies by people who reasonably expect to be employed at significantly higher levels of compensation in the industries they supposedly regulate


·   The “cognitive capture” of state officials, politicians, media personnel, educators, nonprofit managers by business ideology


·    The systematic destruction and undermining of organizations (i.e., labor unions) that might offer some countervailing power to that of big business in the political and policy realms


·    The offer of jobs, corporate board memberships, internships, and other perks and payments to public officials and their families and to other “influentials” and their families


·   Control of education and publishing (a) to filter out, repress, and marginalize “populist” and “radical” (democratic) critiques of the profits system, corporations, and capitalist culture; and (b) to identify the public interest with business needs


·   The use by business of the threat of disinvestment, capital flight, and capital strike, all resulting in the loss of jobs and tax revenues to get what they want from governments, unions, and communities


The Insider-Outsider Game


A front-page New York Times report two weeks before the election told of a curious, election-related way in which corporate power had penetrated the White House. It told the story of Anita Dunn—a close Obama confidante who was both a leading White House campaign advisor and a top corporate strategist—who played a key role in helping ready Obama for his debates and in plotting the attack on Romney, particularly in regard to issues of gender and healthcare. Dunn was also a leading partner at SKD Knickerbocker (SKDK), a communications firm that has “built a growing list of blue-chip companies—food manufacturers, a military contractor, the New York Stock Exchange and the Canadian company developing the Keystone Pipeline—willing to pay handsomely for help in winning over federal regulators or landing government contracts.” The company offers corporations what SKDK partner and leading Obama ally Hilary Rosen calls “help in navigating the political landscape in Washington.”


Thanks to Dunn and SKDK’s close ties to the Administration, the Times reported, the firm had recently doubled in size to 60 employees and “hired a dozen Washington insiders tied to the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, including Ms. Rosen, a former lobbyist; Jill Zuckman, a senior Transportation Department official; and Doug Thornell, a former senior aide to House Democrats. It took on corporate clients, including General Electric, AT&T, Time Warner, Pratt & Whitney, Kaplan University, and TransCanada, which is developing the Keystone XL pipeline…. The firm has also helped run industry coalitions seeking to influence federal policy on particular issues, working with lobbyists and other media specialists that represented companies like Oracle, Google, Disney, Pepsi, and Microsoft.”


In one particularly ugly episode, SKDK helped food manufacturers and media companies block Administration efforts to curb food commercials for unhealthy products—like sugared cereals—that targeted children. The White House abandoned the proposed limits after a coalition assembled by SKDK lobbied legislators to oppose the plan. Other shining moments in SKDK’s history include “helping the New York Stock Exchange seek [Administration] approval for a merger with a German exchange” and “representing a business coalition seeking to reduce tax rates on about $1 trillion in offshore earnings.” According to Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton, “Ms. Dunn’s dual roles show the limits of Mr. Obama’s attempts to change the culture of Washington. Even as he pledged to curb the influence of special interests in the capital and has restricted the role of lobbyists in his Administration, the president and his top aides continue to rely on political operatives like Dunn who also represent [corporate] clients seeking to influence public policy.” The Obama administration’s “rules…do not apply to the army of consultants, advisers, communication strategists, and others who represent clients with federal agendas. Unlike lobbyists, they are not required to disclose their activities, clients or issues, a freedom that has allowed them to become even more influential in recent years…” (“Strategizing for the President, and Corporate Clients Too,” NYT, October 19, 2012).


“Expect Bitter Pills”


Obama told his fellow dollar Democrats in the U.S. Senate in February 2010, “We’ve got to be the party of business, small business and large business, because they produce jobs. We’ve got to be in favor of competition and exports and trade. We’ve got to be non-ideological about our approach to these things. We’ve got to…understand that, like it or not, we have to have a financial system that is healthy and functioning, so we can’t be demining every bank out there” (Lance Selfa, “From Hope to Hopeless: The Democrats in the Obama Era,” International Socialist Review, September-October 2012).


Such statements are bought to some extent with elite campaign contributions. They also reflect the basic structural fact that a first-term president is captive to the investing class when it comes to being able to link his presidency to the labor market in ways that permit him to win enough votes for a second term.


In Obama’s case, they also reflected a deeply conservative, pro-business, and conciliatory temperament and record that goes back to the beginning of Obama’s political career (see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, 2008). We might recall the contrast between Obama and his ill-fated Democratic rival John Edwards in the pivotal 2007-08 Iowa primary campaign, when Edwards won approval from Ralph Nader and electrified town hall audiences by saying that only an “epic fight” with corporate power, Republicans, and corporate politicians in both parties could achieve meaningful progressive change. In a debate in Des Moines, Obama responded with typical “eloquent evasion” (as Mike Davis put it) by proclaiming that “we don’t need more heat, we need more light.” It wasn’t about fighting the dominant power centers, the Obama campaign argued. It was about getting “everyone,” including, above all, the right and the leading corporations, to “sit down at a big negotiating table” to make great and “bipartisan” deals on behalf of the nation.


Obama’s retort to Edwards (calling in essence for cool conciliation and deal-making with Wall Street and the GOP) set the tone for his first term. His Administration immediately became and remained a richly instructive tutorial on who really rules America beyond the charade of popular governance, the wealthy corporate and financial few—and on the futility of seeking democratic transformation through the election of ruling class-backed major party candidates. Administration watchers saw who Obama’s “light”-bringers were—people like Larry Summers of Goldman Sachs and the World Bank and Harvard; Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke of the Wall Street aristocracy; Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates; corporate communications consultant and influence peddler Anita Dunn; and numerous other embodiments of Adam Smith’s warning that “the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others.” “And they are the architects of policy,” Noam Chomsky observed early on, adding “Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the very same financial] sector” that crashed the U.S. and global economy in 2007 and 2008 (“Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Boston Review, September/October 2009).


All indications point to more of the same in a second term. During the campaign, as the president hopped from one $30,000-a-plate-and-up fundraiser to another, he repeatedly boasted that he had reduced discretionary nondefense federal spending to its lowest level since the Eisenhower years—as if that was a good thing amidst a lingering economic crisis that consigned more than a million American children to life at less than half the poverty level. Also noteworthy was the president’s initially off-the-record comment to the Des Moines Register editorial board last October. “It will probably be messy,” Obama told Iowa’s leading newspaper. “It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain…I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs.” Obama’s statement was off-record because his handlers feared it would alienate the president’s progressive base, which is adamantly opposed to any reductions in Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security and rightly believes that mass unemployment, not the deficit, is the nation’s leading economic problem.


In a conference call with Democratic Party activists exactly one week after the 2012 election, Obama foreshadowed his intent to give away a lot to the rich and the right in his forthcoming “fiscal cliff” “showdown” with the Republican House. As the liberal Huffington Post—whose reporters listened in on the call—reported, Obama “cautioned listeners to expect disappointments during his second term. As he has in the past, Obama warned that he was prepared to swallow some bitter pills during the negotiations, including some that would agitate the base. ‘As we move forward there are going to be new wrinkles and new frustrations, we can’t predict them yet,’ he said. ‘We are going to have some triumphs and some successes, but there are going to be some tough days, starting with some of these negotiations around the fiscal cliff that you read about” (Common Dreams Staff, “Already? Obama Tells Supporters to Expect ‘Bitter Pills’,” Common Dreams, November 14, 2012). Never mind that “the fiscal cliff” is an elite-manufactured crisis and Wall Street scam—a propaganda creation of sociopathic CEOs meant to justify a major top-down assault on what’s left of basic social programs and the welfare state in the United States (see Michael Hudson, “Fiscal Cliff Trojan,” michael


So what if, as Katrina vanden Heuvel noted, “Americans have just voted to reelect the president with clear priorities,” including “Washington…get[ting] to work creating jobs…[and] rais[ing] taxes on the richest two percent…to invest in areas vital to our future, as he pledged repeatedly across the country?”  

So what if numerous liberal and progressive economists, led by Paul Krugman, note that the fiscal cliff is a reactionary scam and that the current U.S. economic situation calls for government to spend more, not less, so as to reduce joblessness and that austerity (slashing spending) increases the likelihood of renewed recession?


So what if former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich observes that “the past four years have proved…that the White House should not begin with a compromise?”


And so what if Obama’s audacious so-called grand bargain—really a grand betrayal that rolls back Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid along with other public benefits—in the summer of 2011 helped set off the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in 2011?

In an unmistakable case of “déjà vu all over again,” Obama clearly has little desire to govern in accord with the fighting and progressive rhetoric he used to win the working class, lower class, minority, and middle class votes. Proving the elementary psychological point that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior, he will continue to make policy in accord with his underlying vacuous and neoliberal essence, epitomizing the once-left Christopher Hitchens’s observation that “the manipulation of populism by elitism” marks “the essence of American politics” and validating for four more years the great American philosopher John Dewey’s judgment that U.S, politics is little more than “the shadow cast on society by big business.”


“We must make our choice,” the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”


This was the choice—much bigger and deeper than the ones offered to voters in the U.S. ballot box—that OWS briefly placed front and center in the political culture a little more than a year ago, before the Movement was dismantled by force and by Democrats (including Obama) to make way for the “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky), quickly installed as the dominant news story until the week after the election, when it was revealingly replaced by “the fiscal cliff.”


Still, there are three good reasons for leftists to welcome Obama’s victory. First, a Romney-Ryan triumph would have meant a significant escalation of ongoing catastrophe for vulnerable people and livable ecology at home and abroad. Second, a Romney-Ryan victory would have deepened demoralization among progressives, feeding the depressing narrative that most of the nation is viciously and hopelessly right wing, nativist, racist, classist, patriarchal, and the like. Third, a Republican victory would have fed the liberal narrative that change is about elections and that the main and big thing for us to focus all our energies on is voting out “those crazy evil Republicans.” Left progressives want Americans to agree with the late Howard Zinn that:


·      it’s about building popular social movements through difficult but rewarding and vital organizing work each and every day, beneath and beyond the quadrennial big money-big media-major party-narrow spectrum-candidate-centered election spectacles


·   it’s about radical structural change in the underlying systems of social and economic power, not just replacing one brand or flavor of ruling class politicians with another once very 2 or 4 years


·    the real and serious politics that matters the most (beyond whatever one does or doesn’t do for two minutes in a voting booth) is about building grassroots pressure for progressive change and people’s power and a democratic society and politics


When it comes to demonstrating both the limited potential for democratic change under the existing U.S. political system and the need for action beyond the official channels, its better for the “leftmost” of the two dominant business parties to hold nominal power.  


Paul Street is the author of many studies, chapters, and books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007).