The Presidential Election and the Left

By mid-August of this year, you could hear the great authoritarian sucking sound of the latest presidential election spectacle moving up the decibel chart in the wake of the London Olympics. Think of it as a kind of citizen-dispersing sonic cannon, designed to keep the population managed and marginalized.


The year 2011 was “the year of the protestor” (Time Magazine) from Tunisia, Cairo, and even Tel Aviv to Madrid, Athens, Madison, Wisconsin, lower Manhattan (Zucotti Park) and then across more than 1,000 U.S. locations. Millions were in the streets, united by what the leading liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “a common understanding that…the economic and political system had failed and that both were fundamentally unfair…. There are moments,” Stiglitz was inspired to comment at the beginning of his latest book The Price of Inequality, “when people all over the world seem to rise up, to say that something is wrong, to ask for change.” It must have been unsettling for America’s filthy rich to hear so many ordinary citizens talk about how the American economic and political system is rigged to serve and protect the wealthy few. The capitalist elite could not have enjoyed the wide and initially quite positive media coverage given to activists who criticized the nation’s savage disparities and plutocracy and the rising attention given to economic inequality. It could not have been pleasant for the financial and corporate bourgeoisie to see so many Americans show that they did not think they’d been given a remotely adequate voice in public affairs.


It must have been a great relief for the masters to see the elite-managed, narrow-spectrum presidential contest move front and center a year later.


Input Every Four Years


When an ABC television correspondent asked Vice President Dick Cheney about surveys demonstrating that the great majority of Americans opposed the war in Iraq, Cheney said, “So?”


“So—you don’t care what the American people think?” the correspondent asked.


“No,” Cheney elaborated, “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls.” Justifying Cheney’s blunt remarks, White House spokesperson Dana Perino was later asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. policy. “You had your input,” Perino replied. “The American people have input every four years and that’s the way our system is set up.”


Noam Chomsky aptly summarized the core sentiment behind this remark: “Every four years the American people can choose between candidates whose views they reject and then they should shut up.” As Chomsky noted at the time, citing relevant survey data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the preponderant majority of Americans disagreed. A remarkable 94 percent of U.S. citizens said that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections—a massive repudiation of the authoritarian notion that elections are the only time when the citizenry’s opinion should have influence.


The Obama Bubble That Went Pop


After vetting him carefully, the ruling class hired the fake-progressive, deeply conservative Barack Obama to sustain the illusion that elections provide significant popular input. His assignment was to tamp down popular expectations for progressive change after the long national arch-plutocratic Bush-Cheney nightmare. It worked well in 2009 and 2010, with the only sign of seemingly popular resistance emerging on the hard right in the form of the elite-funded, media-fanned, super-Republican, white nationalist Tea Party phenomenon.


Nearly four years after the real estate bubble popped, however, the Obama bubble seemed to have gone poof as well. Taking a cue from social protest movements in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe, the Wisconsin and Occupy protestors seemed to embody the wisdom of the radical American historian Howard Zinn. “The really critical thing,” Zinn once wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.” As Zinn explained in an essay on “election madness”: “The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us…. Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”


It could not have been enjoyable for the ruling class as Obama seemed to lose his capacity to charm the multitude into thinking that their views were represented. It’s not for nothing that they ordered the forced dismantlement of the Occupy Wall Street encampment by militarized police in New York City. 


“Your Voice, Your Vote”


The year 2012 has been a very different year. Starting as early as last January, the nation has been thrown into the vast mind-numbing sinkhole of the great quadrennial big money, big media, narrow spectrum-candidate-centered electoral extravaganza, sold to us as “democratic politics.” When ABC’s evening national news show turns to the presidential race, its main story for months puts up a logo over the left shoulder of the news anchor: “Your Vote, Your Voice.”


Speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) last July 12, Vice President Joe Biden “reminds” them of one thing. Remember,” Biden sputtered, “what this at its core was all about—what 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.”


Change through presidential elections? By voting for Democrats? Staffed with agents and allies of the rich and powerful, the “hope” and “change” Obama administration has offered the nation a great tutorial on who really rules America beneath the charade of popular governance. Beyond its monumental bailout of financial overlords, its lack of mortgage relief for the unjustly foreclosed and debt-burdened, and its refusal to nationalize and cut down the financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, it has:


  • passed an explicitly Republican-inspired health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love 
  • cut an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds 
  • undermined desperately needed global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011)
  • refused to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise)
  • green-lighted offshore and Arctic drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices
  • rolled-over Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich
  • froze federal wages and salaries
  • cut a debt ceiling deal that was all about cutting social programs
  • disregarded promises to labor and other popular constituencies and other betrayals of its “progressive base”
  • kept to its Wall Street and corporate sponsors who set new campaign finance records in backing Obama in 2008
  • failed to embrace the Wisconsin worker rebellion in its major party-electoral phases
  • acted to crush (while trying to co-opt) the Occupy Movement
  • demonstrated the chimerical nature of the notion that one can achieve progressing change by voting for a ruling class-sponsored candidate


It’s nothing new. As with Obama, the records of the Democratic Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton administrations were consistent with Upton Sinclair’s observation more than a century ago that, “the two political parties are two wings of the same bird of prey. The people,” Sinclair noted, “are allowed to choose between their candidates and both of them are controlled, and all their nominations are dictated by, the same [money] power.”


Biden might want to examine the NAACP’s history more closely and carefully. The nation’s pioneering civil rights organization formed and worked around many issues other than voting rights. At the same time, the vice president might also want to look more closely at the many different ways (other than just voting) that black and other Americans have “changed things.” As Noam Chomsky noted eight years ago, “Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once very four years.” The Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the anti-Vietnam War movements hardly waited for election dates and the sympathy of politicians to “change things.” They undertook powerful non-electoral direct actions like the sit-down strike wave of 1936-1937, the courageous lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1961-62, and the many mass mobilizations for peace that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Off the Table


In the current election frenzy that pits Obama against Romney, the Democrats, and much of the corporate media seem to expect us to throw the first three years and seven months of the Obama administration down George Orwell’s memory hole. Obama is presented to us as a regular man of the people versus “Mr. 1%” (really .001%) Romney. Never mind the president’s cringing service to “the 1%”—now rewarded, it should be noted, with a stunning lack of gratitude from Wall Street investors who have turned to Romney.


The leading theme in the corporate media’s relentless election coverage and commentary is as usual about the horse race in which two candidates will prevail and why. Progressive measures and demands like Medicare for All, real progressive taxation, full employ-ment/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. So what?


To Undo the Gains of the Last Century


Does this mean that U.S. progressives and leftists should ignore the presidential election or make the standard radical protest-vote for a left candidate who has no chance of registering anything beyond a tiny showing? Terrible and plutocratic as the U.S. elections system is, that is not a responsible position—at least not in states where the election is contested.


It is, to be sure, a great mistake for progressives to stick their heads in the sand about (or to apologize for) the corporatism, imperialism, eco-cidalism, white-supremacism, and sexism of the Democrats. There is no respectable moral or strategic basis for telling the Democrats that they can count on our votes in advance, no matter how egregiously they ignore majority and progressive concerns in accord with Upton Sinclair’s dictum.


At the same time, it is equally unwise for leftists to simply turn a dismissive eye to the dangerous extremism of the radical Republican Party and to the role that ignoring the election or protest-voting can play in helping the right entrench its power. The GOP has become even more “publicly committed to dismantling and destroying whatever progressive legislations and social welfare has been won by popular struggles over the past century” (Chomsky). 


That judgment is no less relevant four years later, to say the least. Nobody, probably not even Romney, knows if Romney actually means what he says on the campaign trail. But if the Republicans complete their takeover of Congress—a distinct possibility—next November, a President Romney would face overriding pressure to act on what he says. And here’s what he 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 Congressperson Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate amounts to a de facto endorsement of Ryan’s plans to voucherize 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.


For Serious and Lasting Disillusionment, Democrats Are Best


As it happens, there’s a rarely noted left and strategic case for preferring the Democratic wing of Sinclair’s “bird of prey” to hold power in Washington. Leftists are correct to worry about the role of the Democratic Party in co-opting rank and file social and political movements and popular energies. But how are the Democrats best revealed as agents of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire? Which is better for the development of serious and lasting political action: (a) Republicans holding nominal power or (b) Democrats sitting atop the symbolic ship of state?


The answer is (b). It would be best to get Obama back for a second term for two key reasons. First, it is dishonest, or just plain ignorant, not to admit that the intensity of the corporate and social-conservative assault on the U.S. populace will be more severe in Romney’s first term (particularly if that term were to coincide with a full Republican takeover of Congress) than it will be under Obama’s second term. Second, and most important (since the main task is to get serious left socio-political movements underway), the presence of another Republican in the White House will just encourage citizens and activists to blame everything wrong in America on “those insane evil Republicans.”


Having Republicans in power reinforces many liberals’ and progressives’ false belief that the nation’s problems can be reduced largely to the fact that Republicans are in charge. When the Republican trademark spoils, as it did under George W. Bush in his second term, the ruling class remains free to generate the illusion of meaningful “change” by pulling the GOP brand from the shelf and putting the Democratic product (generally advertised as “hope” and “change”) out front for a while.


Some left observers (this writer included) wanted Obama to win the 2008 election for what might seem an odd reason. They hoped Obama would triumph because they sensed radical potential in U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones. They wanted Americans (young ones above all) to come into direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the U.S. imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their expectations of transformation and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial, and military rule with the “dismal Dems” at the helm of the ship of state. They wanted ordinary people to face the reality that, as commentator Doug Henwood put it four years ago, “everything still pretty much sucks” when Democrats hold the top political offices—that the basic underlying institutional realities of capitalist and imperial rule stay the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff noted two years ago, “I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation.”


Henwood’s ironic hope for Obama has been borne out by the rise of the Occupy Movement, which fed off youthful disillusionment with Obama, the Democrats, and the profit system that the president and his party serve. As Stiglitz, no radical, observes: “That the young would rise up against the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt was understandable. The youth were tired of aging, sclerotic leaders who protected their own interests at the expense of the rest of society. They had no opportunities to call for change through democratic processes. But electoral politics had also failed in Western democracies. U.S. president Barack Obama had promised ‘change you can believe in,’ but he subsequently delivered economic policies that, to many Americans, seemed like more of the same” (Stiglitz, 2012).


Radicals want workers and citizens to grasp that the real problem is not which of the two wings holds political office but the underlying bipartisan rule of capital and Empire. Having the officially “leftmost” of the two dominant political organizations in office is strategically preferable when it comes to bringing that essential lesson home. Besides accelerating the ongoing bipartisan and neoliberal assault on ordinary people and the common good, the return of the radical Republican Party to the White House will reinforce the longstanding liberal claim that installing Democrats in power is the cure to the national malaise.


Obama was a great object lesson in the wisdom of Zinn’s maxim on the limits of electoral politics and how real change is about who’s sitting in the streets, not just who’s sitting in the White House. The lesson can continue once the latest election spectacle recedes in 2013.


Beyond Electoral/Anti-Electoral Fetishism


Electoral fetishism and anti-electoral fetishism both miss the essential Zinn point, glimpsed last year in Madison and especially by Occupy Wall Street: We organize first to become too powerful to be ignored by the nation’s centers of power, whichever brand/ brands of mainstream politician hold or share nominal authority from one election cycle to the next. We organize next to overtake those centers and replace them with people’s power and a democracy that is not a charade—no small project.


Progressives can and will do whatever they want when the extravaganza climaxes on Election Day. If they don’t keep their eyes on the far more relevant and serious politics of popular movement-building, it really won’t matter.


Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11; The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power; and (coauthored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics.