Elephants or Donkeys - Does it Matter?

by Paul Street and Alex Doherty

The differences between Romney and Obama are far less than the media suppose and revealing of the poor state of democracy in the United States.

First published: 19 September, 2012 | Category: 

Paul Street is an activist and author whose works include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, and Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the Democratic national convention and the upcoming presidential election.

The performances of Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention were widely praised in the media. What did you make of what they had to say?

Performance is the right word. The First Lady and Bill Clinton both gave highly effective and theatrical performances meant to humanize Barack Obama and make him out to be a basically progressive soul who cares deeply about ordinary Americans, who has the done the best he could with the terrible economy he was handled by the awful Republicans, and who deserves a second term to finish the careful work of recovery and healing he has undertaken.  Clinton’s speech was mesmerizing at times, though as usual it went too long. He is a remarkable stage performer endowed with silver southern charm and perfect timing.

That said, I was struck by the abject hypocrisy of the passion play. Michelle Obama can talk all she wants about how much her husband cares about his daughters and the rest of humanity but the fact is that the president kills innocent women and children with self-righteous impunity – just ask the  survivors of the many civilians his drones and bombs have obliterated in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. Google up “Bola Boluk” and see how the president refused so much as to apologise for an especially egregious U.S. air slaughter during his first year in office, when he demonstrated his cold-blooded determination to keep the American imperial “machine set on kill” (as Allan Nairn put it)..

Michelle Obama can get as teary-eyed as she wants about “Barack’s” supposed concern for “the least of us.”  The fact is that he has offered no bold proposals to address the inequality and deep poverty that have risen to record levels under his administration – this even as he granted record-setting levels of taxpayer-funded assistance to the very financial institutions that caused the economic crisis. 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 hyper-opulent financial overlords, its lack of mortgage relief for the unjustly foreclosed and debt-burdened, and its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic financial institutions that has 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 on Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich
• froze federal wages and salaries
• cut a debt ceiling deal (last summer)  that was all about cutting social programs instead of tax increases on the rich
• disregarded  numerous promises to labor and other popular constituencies making  up its “progressive base”
• failed to embrace the Wisconsin worker rebellion
• acted to crush (while trying to co-opt) the Occupy Movement

It’s nothing new. As with Obama, the corporate and imperial records of the Democratic Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton administrations were richly 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.”

But of course it's election time and American elections are all about what a still-left Christopher Hitchens rightly identified in 1999 (in a book on the Clintons) as “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.”  We are all expected to throw the record of Obama’s relentless service to the nation’s unelected and overlapping dictatorships of money and empire down Orwell’s memory hole. Also to be forgotten is the plutocratic record of the Clinton administration, which helped prepare the ground for the 2007-08 financial meltdown and the remarkable increase in American poverty afterwards by (a) significantly de-regulating Wall Street and (b) repealing poor families’ entitlement to cash assistance in the name of “welfare reform.”

Here is the most frequently quoted and lauded line in Clinton’s speech: “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was pretty simple: ‘we left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.’”  That was very clever, but the unmentionable truth is that the neoliberal polices that loosened financial regulation, undercut social protections, deepened economic inequality, and produced crisis in the U.S. have been a richly bipartisan affair going back to the Jimmy Carter administration. The mess Obama inherited was richly bipartisan in its creation and Clinton played no small role in creating it. Partisan calculations naturally dictated that Clinton and other DNC speakers blame the epic economic crisis that Obama inherited entirely on the Republicans. 

As the Democrats said more than once at their convention while criticizing the Republicans, “facts are stubborn things.” 

How significant are the differences between Romney and Obama?

Well, everything is relative. In a recent Black Agenda Report column the venerable left Black 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.”’
• ‘Immigrants must be jailed and deported in record numbers.’
• ‘No Medicare for All. Forget about 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 parties and candidates are not completely indistinguishable,  but Dixon has provided an impressive list of common ground between the standard-bearers of the two dominant political organizations. One could easily add other areas of agreement, including the following:

● Capitalism, the so-called free enterprise system, is the greatest economic system of all time and the best such system humanity could ever devise. It must be defended and advanced at all costs.

● Racism no longer offers a major or leading barrier to black and Latino advancement and racial equality in a colorblind America – the main barriers are internal to the communities and culture of the disadvantaged.  

● As the greatest country the world has ever known, the United States possesses the God- and history-granted right to rule the world by force.

● We cannot afford to take the environmental crisis with the seriousness it deserves since doing so would disrupt “the economy.” We must worship at the altar of Growth and cannot let long-term considerations of human survival and livable ecology interfere with the short-term pursuit of material expansion and the bottom line.

On this last point, a recent Wall Street Journal report on the two major party conventions bears a chilling and telling headline: “Both Parties Shift to Promote More Fossil Fuels.”  Here is the story’s lead: “The revolution in U.S. oil and gas production over the past four years has changed the platforms of both political parties, with Democrats and Republicans more bullish on these resources and less concerned about climate change than they were during the last presidential election…Democrats have moved so far that their platform bears a striking resemblance to the GOP platform of 2008.”  (Keith Johnson. WSJ, September 7, 2012, A6). The article’s author does not bother to mention that this means kissing the planet – well a decent and desirable future for humanity and other species – pretty much goodbye. “Game over” (as James Hansen puts it) for the environment? So what? Who cares?

Does all this mean that good U.S. leftists should either not vote or protest-vote for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein or some other marginal left candidate? Not necessarily. I can see why a serious left progressive would vote “for” Obama to block Romney in a contested state.  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 distinct possibility – next November, a President Romney would face paramount pressure to do what he says.  Here’s what he’s said he would do as president:

• immediately okay the disastrous Keystone Pipeline
• end federal tax support 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 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.

The differences are at least significant enough that many U.S. progressives in contested states are going to quite understandably feel compelled to hold their nose and vote “for” the party of Carter, Clinton and Obama to block the party of Reagan, the Bushes and Ryan-Romney. I say this as someone who has protest-voted in past presidential elections.

Progressives will do whatever they want when the latest quadrennial big money-big media-major-party-candidate-centered “electoral extravaganza” (to use Noam Chomsky's phrase) climaxes this November. If we don’t keep our eyes focused on – if we don’t stay Occupied with – the far more relevant and serious politics of popular movement-building, it really won’t matter.  Electoral fetishism and anti-electoral fetishism both miss the essential point made by Howard Zinn, and glimpsed last year in Madison and especially at Occupy Wall Street:  “both before and after those two minutes [in the bourgeois ballot box], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools.”  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.

Do you think that occupy and other forms of resistance to the prevailing economic orthodoxy will respond much differently to a Romney presidency as compared with a second term for Obama?

That’s hard to say.  One thing I dislike with Republicans in the White House is that more progressive-leaning people get sucked into the notion that what we need to do above all is change the party in nominal power. If McCain had won in 2008, I doubt we would have gotten Occupy.  We would have had the Republicans more completely wearing the stink of the Great Recession and a lot of popular movement energy drained into a big get-out-the-vote campaign for fake-populist Obama or fake-populist Hillary in 2012 (the perhaps somewhat less artificially populist Edwards would be out of the picture for embarrassing reasons). Having Republicans in power tends to reinforce many liberals’ and progressives’ false belief that the nation’s problems can be reduced largely to the fact that those evil crazy Republicans are in charge. When the Republican trademark spoils as it did during Richard Nixon’s and George W. Bush’s second terms and under George H.W. Bush’s first term, the ruling class remains free to generate the illusion of democratic correction by pulling the G.O.P brand from the shelf and putting the Democratic product (generally advertised as “hope” and “change” – the keywords of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign) out front for a while.

Radicals want workers and citizens to grasp that the real problem is not which of the two wings of Sinclair’s bird 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.  For serious disillusionment and proving the chimerical nature of the notion that one can achieve progressive change by voting for a ruling class-sponsored candidate, nobody beats “the dismal Dems.” I fear that besides accelerating the ongoing bipartisan and neoliberal assault on ordinary people and the common good, the return of the radically regressive Republican Party to the White House will reinforce the longstanding liberal claim that installing Democrats in power is the cure to the national malaise.

How do you explain the extraordinary resilience of liberal faith in Obama?

That’s an interesting question. From the beginning of the Obama phenomenon, before the 2008 election, I have been asking Obama-mad campus town liberals to tell me if there was any particular line in the sand Obama could cross where they would withdraw support for him.  The question has been consistently met with silence except for one who told me they would cease to back Obama “if he joined the Republican Party.”

U.S. liberalism has become much less about populist and progressive economics or social justice and equality and much more about cultural and professional identity in the neoliberal era. Beyond its left margins, it’s never contained any real concern for the victims of American imperialism, as was clear when liberals applauded Lyndon Johnson’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s chilling term at the time) and Bill Clinton’s bombing of Belgrade – not to mention Obama’s bombing of Libya. So Obama’s service to the aforementioned interrelated dictatorships doesn’t really cost him all that much with contemporary American liberals.

At the same time, while there has been revolting (from a left perspective) ideological political-economic convergence between the Democrats and the Republicans in that era, there are really big cultural differences between the two parties.  The divide between (A) rural, western, southern, white, patriarchal, and evangelical and “Red State” anti-abortion anti-gay America and (B) more urban, coastal, multiracial, feminist, metro-sexual and cosmopolitan “Blue State” America is very real. I’m writing these answers in downtown Iowa City (IC), home to a significant gay population, a much-ballyhooed writers’ workshop, a plethora of Yoga shops, a nice music scene, and a leading state university.  This town is crawling with fortunate, well-paid white professors with Ivy League and other elite credential degrees and a lot of these folks just love the president in a very identity-based yet middle- and upper middle class sort of way. They think he’s one of them – a member of the so-called meritocracy. The biracial, “global,” hip, Harvard-educated, semi-professorial fake-progressive Obama has always been an almost perfect template for young and middle-aged liberal professionals for whom liberalism means the preservation of their privilege and no significant attention to supposedly obsolete issue like poverty, inequality, workers’ rights, and social justice (even if the party has to pay some irritating if ever more reduced lip service to those issues to get the vote out once every four years.) With a technically nonwhite Democrat in nominal power, your typical middle- or coordinator- class liberal doesn’t (as the left commentator Mike McGhee recently put it in a private communication) have to “feign concern” for the working class and the truly disadvantaged.  He or she gets to just point at Obama and say “see, I did my part by voting for the nation’s first black president.”

All I have to do is drive a few miles south or west from IC and I quickly come into contact with parts of a different cultural and political universe. This is the world of those Obama called “bitter clingers” – clingers to God and guns and “the way things used to be,” including the president being white and gays kept in the closet. Here a lot of people seem to think that Obama comes from another planet – a belief that is more than merely reinforced by proto-fascistic right-wing talk radio and FOX News, which forms a regular backdrop to life in the Red zones. This cultural and geographical division is real and the U.S. party division is all about it. The economic elite – “the 1%,” – loves it in a divide-and-conquer sort of way.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?