Chicago, IL. November 4, 2011. In L. Frank Baum’s famous turn-of-the-20th-century children’s novel and Populist allegory The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the youthful heroine Dorothy is informed that "who the real Oz is, no living person can tell.” One of his powers is that “he can take on any form he wishes.” Oz is meant to symbolize the President of the United States. In Baum’ novel, he represented the great fake-populist Democratic Party orator William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president in the name of the inflationary and debt-reducing free coinage of silver and end to the Gold Standard in 1896 and 1900. Bryan has apparently won the White House in Baum’s fantasy. 'Oz' is short for ounce, the means of weighing both gold and silver.
Sent to the distant Land of Oz from her Great Plains home by a Kansas tornado, Dorothy enters by landing on the Wicked Witch of the East, symbol of the reigning Eastern banking class (Wall Street). The crash is fatal for the witch, making Dorothy an instant heroine to the Munchkins, the down-trodden and debt-ridden poor.
The Good Witch of the North, representing Northern workers and farmers, tells Dorothy to seek out the Wizard of Oz for help in getting back home and gives her a pair of silver slippers. The slippers protect her on the yellow-brick road (representing the bankers' gold standard) as she heads towards the Emerald City, representing Washington DC.
Dorothy enters the throne room seeking the powerful One’s assistance in getting back home (to Kansas). She arrives with some friends she’s made along the way: the heartless and squeaky Tin Man (symbol of the dehumanized industrial working class and the rusting of factories amidst the global capitalist depression of the 1890s), the brainless Scarecrow (signifying the oppressed and debt-plagued farmers, who do not understand how they lost their farms to the banks, even though they work hard to grow the food to feed a great and growing nation), and the cowardly Lion, meant to represent the politicians of Congress, who have the power but lack the courage to represent the people against the bankers.
The Wizard appears to each in a different form. He tells the initially awestruck foursome that he is unwilling to help them without a quid pro quo. “I never grant favors without some return,” he proclaims. He sends them off with a mission: do something for him if they expect benefits from the master.
Dorothy and her comrades return after pleasing the Wizard (they think) by killing the Wicked Witch of the West, representing the bankers of the American West. (The deed is done with water, symbolizing the rain craved by drought-plagued Plains farmers desperate to keep their rapacious creditors at bay). But Oz keeps them waiting and puts them off, raising suspicions among his hopeful supplicants. By accident, Dorothy sees behind the wizard’s curtain and beholds a little old man manipulating sound and image machines to create the illusion of magical strength. “Far from a mighty magician,” writes historian Quentin Taylor, “‘Oz, the Terrible’ is [shown to be] merely a ‘humbug,’ a wizened old man whose ‘power’ is achieved through elaborate acts of deception. The Wizard is simply a manipulative politician who appears to the people in one form, but works behind the scenes to achieve his true ends.” Baum’s manipulative, shape-shifting wizard represented “the protean politicians of the era, especially the presidents of the Gilded Age. Given the even division of Democrats and Republicans, and the razor-thin majorities of most presidential elections, candidates rarely took clear stands on the issues. As a result, voters often had difficulty in determining what the candidates stood for.”
It’s left to Dorothy to find her own way home, with a little help from the good Witch of the South, who tells her to click her silver slippers twice.
The Violin Behind Ozbama’s Curtain: the Dark Cloud of the Hidden Primary
Think if you will of Barack Obama as a younger (middle-aged), more charismatic, and obviously darker-toned version of Oz and the largely youthful occupiers of Wall Street and their many imitators across the country as older (primarily young adult) and more urbanized versions of Dorothy. Ascending to the U.S. presidency in a period when the American electorate is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, candidate Obama was (like his Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton) a master at appearing to be different things to different people. It’s not for nothing that he was selected by Association of National Advertisers (ANA) as the “Marketer of the Year” on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. When he spoke to antiwar voters, environmentalists, and union members, “brand Obama” stood for social justice, livable ecology, fair trade, peace, labor law reform, financial regulation, concern with the failures of capitalism, and change from the bottom up. The highlighted sections of the future president’s resume included “Community Organizer,” inner city South Side (Chicago) minority legislator, and “early opponent of the Iraq War.”
Things were different when Obama addressed the rich and powerful. Speaking to the Business Roundtable, the Council on Foreign Relations, and on the big donors and lobbyists’ cocktail circuit, the brand stood for conservative, business friendly “realism,” free trade, the genius of capitalism, empire, and a rare capacity to ride and manage aroused popular expectations in accord with a deep respect for existing dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines. The sections of his resume highlighted for these audiences included Harvard Law, a degree in international relations at Columbia, and years of serving big business and working with Republicans in the Ivy League, Mayor Daley’s Chicago, the infamously money-corrupted Illinois capital (Springfield, IL), and in Baum’s “Emerald City” (Washington D.C.). Candidate/brand Obama had one folder of left- and populist-sounding speeches and personas for excited progressives and working class people in Madison, Wisconsin or Cleveland, Ohio. He had a very different folder for the arenas of corporate and imperial power.
Of course, the different groups a serious presidential candidate (and president) must please in the U.S. electoral regime are not at all equal. As the left historian Laurence Shoup noted in February of 2008, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance through “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial authority. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claimed – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”
Obama and his handlers are far from stupid. Understanding these basic “Marxist” facts quite well, they have governed in accord with what Latin American political observers used to call “the violin model: hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right.” Obama campaigned and gained office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric and then governed in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions. Its straight out of what Christopher Hitchens once called “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
The political Wizards of Washington do not themselves pull the levers and push the buttons behind the curtain. The 1 Percent and its hired political hands do. As the great American philosopher John Dewey noted sixteen years after Baum’s novel, “politics is the shadow cast on [U.S.] society by big business.” As Noam Chomsky recently noted, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”
Cowardly Lions Hoping to Coast on Others’ Courage
The left-handed but right-leaning Wizard of Ozbama has recently ramped up the populist-sounding rhetoric, seeking to rally the Democrats’ all-too dispirited and demobilized “progressive base” for the 2012 face-off against (it would appear with appear with the deadly water that wicked Teapublican witches and warlocks Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have poured on themselves and each other) Mitt Romney. This was happening even before Dorothy et al. landed in Zucotti Park at the instigation of some clever Canadian and left anarchist Munchkins.
Smart Democratic magicians calibrate their messages differently over time as well as place and audience. They put more emphasis on progressive-sounding language and outward plutocrat-bashing the closer they get to elections, when they face the task of briefly mobilizing working class citizens in a country where the majority is angry that the top 1 percent owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of its elected officials. So the president is now channeling Bill Clinton’s ability to “feel [our] pain” – and that of the occupiers – as he simultaneously works to keep the big campaign money milk flowing from the masters of the hidden primary (who supported him in record-setting numbers in 2008). “I think people are frustrated and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama said recently. “The protests you’re seeing are the same conversations people are having in the living rooms and kitchens all across America” says his top campaign strategist David Plouffe: “We intend to make [anger at big financial institutions] one of the central elements of the campaign next year.”
The White House wizards naturally hope to garner electoral advantage from the current youth-led populist upsurge within and beyond Manhattan. So do a broader collection of corporate-whipped Democratic Party Cowardly Lions. “For a Democratic Party dispirited by its president’s sliding approval ratings,” The Wall Street Journal reported three weeks ago, “the new energy [of the occupation movement] has been greeted as a tonic comparable to what Republican congressional leaders tapped in the tea party movement – and are now finding it difficult to harness… In the anti-Wall Street marches, Democrats see an avenue to bring the anger back to their side.” (WSJ, October 7, 2011, A1). Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other top Democrats have all offered glowing words of sympathy. So have the chiefs of the nation’s leading labor unions, critical players in the marshaling of working votes for the Democratic Party. Closer to the ground, Democratic front groups like MoveOn and Van Jones’ “Rebuild the Dream” project are working hard to infiltrate and co-opt the occupation movement for partisan purposes.
Promises Kept and Betrayed
Many among Dorothy and her fellow homeland Occupiers were (it appears from recent survey data) once enthusiastic and expectant Obama supporters. They sought to play by the rules of the American game, working hard, going to school, taking college student loans, and voting for Hope and Change (Obama as Bryan) in big candidate-centered elections (1896, 2008) only to find themselves lost in a financial and economic tornado of debt and weak or non-existent employment chances in a time of epic capitalist recession (1890s, 2008-11) and western and southern drought. They landed on the stage of history on the heads of the great eastern financial barons (Baum’s Wicked Witch of the East) in Manhattan’s financial district (Zucotti Park) Their arrival has been applauded by millions of working and middle class Munchkins across the land, who might not be able to occupy but who feel enslaved by the wealth and power of the parasitic investor and creditor class, which crashed the economy, mired the nation in toxic debt, and convinced the politicians they own to bail them out with the taxpayers’ money even as a record-setting 46 millions now live (and die) without adequate assistance below the Emerald City’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
Dorothy and her crew returned to Oz thinking they had earned the magician’s assistance after slaying the Wicked Witch of West. Three years ago, many of the current occupiers helped Ozbama slay the Wicked Republican Party Witch (whose presidential ticket included a dangerous she-demon from the Alaskan frontier) on the magical Gold(man Sachs)- paved path to the Emerald City’s top job. They did so in the name of progressive "change from the bottom up." They sought a transformation of the usual money-soaked rules of the game imposed by the hidden senate of wealth and the endless military empire. They were struck by the buoyant youth and charisma of the new wizard-in-waiting and proud to elect the nation’s first non-white president – an African American with a technically Muslim name to boot.
What did they get for their votes and electoral activism? What did the great and powerful, silver-tongued Ozbama give them as a reward for their efforts? Nothing, or next to it, behind the smoke and mirrors. Consistent with the “deeply conservative” arch-“conciliator” Obama’s longstanding fake-pragmatist, pseudo-progressive “business liberalism,” the “Obama, Inc.” administration has been a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewards capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and various other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors) too numerous to mention here, the Ozbama White House has demonstrated the power of Shoup’s “hidden primary” with special vengeance.
The wizard’s violin performance has given Dorothy et al. what liberal commentator Bill Greider calls “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” There’s lots of protection and money for the top 1 percent that owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s elected officials. The “right people” do not include the nation’s 25 million unemployed, the 46 million officially poor or the (I hope your are sitting down dear reader) 1 in 15 Americans who now live (as was reported this week) in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the federal government’s miserly poverty measure.