America’s Silly Season–The 2012 (Alleged) Elections

by Matthew Payne on January 5, 2012Comments Off

Well, the spectacle of American and foreign media descending on one pretty marginal state with an anti-democratic primary delegate selection process (the “caucus system”) while major issues such as the body count in the Empire’s most recent debacle go uncovered is depressing enough. The Iowa Caucuses are simply an excuse for the media to report on a pre-packaged, establishmentarian horse race and therefore, like the meaningless national political conventions, allows them to avoid any conflict by just reciting the lines given them by various spokespeople and PR flacks. The last thing they want to do is talk with actual voters. The real primary, which was highlighted by (irony of ironies–“hoisted on own petard” much?) Newt Gingrich getting carpet-bombed by anonymous negative ads was mentioned by “savvy political reporters” but without much reference to what it really means. In recent American elections, according to Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, 96% of candidates who spend more money win. The vast bulk of that money is provided by 0.26% of the population. It is hard to argue with Matt Taibbi that the Iowa caucus, and indeed the entire primary process, is a gross farce in which the oligarchic nature of the political system is hidden by Potemkin facades of electoral participation.

This caucus, let’s face it, marks the beginning of a long, rigidly-controlled, carefully choreographed process that is really designed to do two things: weed out dangerous minority opinions, and award power to the candidate who least offends the public while he goes about his primary job of energetically representing establishment interests.

Romney and his invisible bag men will win the nomination, despite the utter contempt he evokes in most of the GOP base, precisely because of his elitism and lack of concern for the average citizen. The big money boys like the cut of his jib.

The primaries are not completely useless, as Taibbi indicates–sometimes the establishment is split and a protracted campaign allows the party establishment to coalesce around one candidate (as in the 2008 democratic primaries) and various “outsider” candidates (Dean in 2004, Paul in 2008 and 2012) act to let off political steam. It is better to have the hippies and libertarians safely locked into one or the other party with a few meaningless platform planks than have them “going rogue.” What evokes true fury in most true-blue dems is not that Bush stole the 2000 election, that’s just smooth politics, but the DFH’s who had the nerve to vote for Nader–those guys, not electoral theft in Florida or incompetence in Tennessee cost Gore the election and ipso facto are responsible for all the excesses of the Bush regime. Ditto with the GOP and Ross Perot. Thus, while both Dean and Paul’s positions are unacceptable to the Establishment (both in the party sense and more broadly), their running in the primary allows the candidates or their positions to be demonized and therefore marginalized. From an insider/outsider perspective, the Presidential primaries are a mug’s game–not even a well-funded, popular and disciplined outsider campaign can break through (the last one that did was the McGovern campaign in 1972 and we all know how that ended up). And yes, yes, yes, I know someone will argue that the Obama campaign in 2008 bucked this trend but I respectfully disagree–anyone who harvested that much money from Wall Street was not exactly an insurgent. The guy was a made-man who proved his loyalty to the status quo with his vote on Telecom Immunization Bill and certainly with his calm and measured support for funneling a fire hose’s worth of citizens’ money at the banks with TARP.

But if the presidential primaries are generally a farce, why are they such a fixture in American civic life? Well, they obviously serve a legitimizing function of at least giving the appearance that political power in the country is based on popular sovereignty rather than an open auction (though, as Lessig and others like Dylan Ratigan have noted the latter is much closer to reality). But more importantly, these campaigns allow for the imposition of orthodoxy. To my way of thinking, although the mechanisms are obviously different and far less despotic, the primary season is a lot like voting in a Communist election. Vaclav Havel was hardly the only commentator to note that the effect of such a farce was quite deliberate and enervating–by making citizens of Communist countries complicit in the lie that they were served by “people’s democracies” the process of “voting” acted as a mechanism to of passive compliance (or “socialization” in PoliSci speak). Being coerced into a meaningless civic ritual not only made clear the power relations that worked against citizens, it also crowded out space for legitimate dissent and possible alternatives. The practices of American (and others’ ) “representational democracy” is hardly as debased as the old people’s republics, especially down-ticket and on a local level, but it is quite clear that Congress, for instance, is representing entities other than its constituents (painfully obvious by the universal loathing in which the institution is held–only 5% of Americans have a positive opinion of it and its denizens). Frankly, I’m not sure old Soviet apparatchiki were as hated as American politicians chosen in an allegedly free and fair electoral process.

But primary contests are also good opportunities for partisan knee-breakers to enforce “appropriate” political views (one might call this, with reference back to the old Stalinist practices, the real “political correctness”). The extraordinary vitriol being heaped on Ron Paul by the political establishment of the GOP, especially in the figure of arch-party boss and lobbyist-in-chief, Newt Gingrich, is illustrative on this account. Now, I’m sure many liberals and progressives (and moderates–whatever the hell they are) will immediately jump up to defend Gingrich’s assessment of Paul as “dangerous” and outside the pale, due to his antediluvian views on the gold standard, his strong opposition to reproductive rights, his antipathy to the welfare state and contempt for proactive guarantees of civil rights (with major components of racism, misogyny and homophobia, in my mind). But of course Gingrich is fine with Paul on all that (well, maybe not the gold buggism, but just wait until he’s paid to shill for it!). Gingrich is appalled primarily at Paul’s anti-militarism, his opposition to the Drug War™ and his strong insistence on civil liberties (such as the rights not to be indefinitely detained, arrested without warrant, tortured or murdered by the state–all things Gingrich support). Besides his more quaint Victorian values of supporting child labor and attacking “entitlements” such as social security, Gingrich is a militarist on steroids and once called for People’s Republic of China-style laws to execute those found with excessive amounts of marijuana. The guy hates Paul for the reason some liberals admire Paul, for his opposition to the prison state and endless wars of empire.

Of course, these are precisely the issues that have made so many young voters “Paul Curious.” Now, this leads to another partisan orthodoxy pie-fight–drumming out various different progressive and liberal commentators from the “movement” for insufficient regard to party orthodoxy. Some liberals have supported some of Paul’s positions (0r expressed happiness his views are being aired) or asked how, actually, Obama represents that much of a contrast to Romney on economic policy or from Bush II on aggressive militarism or civil liberties. Needless to say, such open doubts about the Democratic standard-bearer’s commitment to liberal values have not been met kindly. Very quickly following the breaching of the topic, the heretic is likely to be accused of being a libertarian or Naderite or Trotskyite or some damn thing (probably a racist and sexist ignorant of White male privilege as well, if that charge can be plausible made to stick).

It is hard to see this silliness as anything other than it is–an attempt to suppress dissent to the carefully molded party line. Indeed, even the liberal commentariat now admits that Obama is the status quo candidate (As Sarah Palin would say, “How’s that hopey, changey thing working for ya?”), that he is the “conservative.” Obama is not unique in being a democrat with a fair amount of contempt for liberals and progressives and it is hard to argue that he much cares about their concerns. His Presidency is, fairly objectively, the continuation of the George Bush’s foreign policy in his second term. Just a list of the similarities is fairly dispositive: an aggressive drone war, ramped up the occupation of Afghanistan (to no good effect), attempted prolongation of the Iraqi occupation, contempt for the constitutional limits of his war-making powers by killing the War Powers Act, covert wars in multiple places (most dangerously in Iran), codification of indefinite detention, a targeted assassination campaign (to the acclaim of neo-cons!) even against American citizens (and their teenage children!) and denial of the court system to victims of American abuse. The massive American prison at Bagram has just an evil reputation as Gitmo (which is unclosed) and Abu Ghraib (and almost certainly continues the “enhanced interrogation” regime of the Bush second term).

This is, to put it mildly, a grotesque record that should have any liberal or progressive rethinking his or her support at a minimum. As Jeremy Scahill has noted,

If a President McCain were doing the exact same thing that President Obama is doing, he would have been denounced by a lot of liberals. It’s one of those dangerous moments in the US history. We saw it a bit with Clinton in the 1990s, where a democrat campaigned and pledged to change the country and the world has actually pushed the right-wing agenda further forward than a republican could have if they took the power

Supporters will usually argue he is constrained by his own party in Congress or circumstances, but given his massive executive authority in foreign policy and war-fighting–powers he has zealously guarded and sought to expand–it is difficult to argue that Obama is simply a representative of the Democratic fecklessness on these issues, though certainly he is also that. Rather, he is very much the sort of war-mongering autocrat, indifferent to the rule of law, that George W. Bush was and as Matt Stoller has pointed out, this discomfits many, many liberals by pointing out their fundamental hypocrisy in supporting such a rank imperialist. Obama is certainly more competent and proficient at the use of violence to secure America’s imperial interests than Bush, but that hardly makes his character less vicious than his predecessor’s. This is why even bringing up support for Paul’s anti-interventionist stance brings out a visceral response in the liberal commentariat–as Matt Browner Hamlin points out, confronting the reality that Obama is pretty much the same guy as W on national security issues is just too bitter a pill for the left-of-center types to swallow. And, as Corey Robin notes, liberals have a habit of deferring to authoritarianism, if they consider that authority bureaucratically sanctified. (Although note, not radicals and progressives. Noam Chomsky’s got nothing good to say about Obama on civil liberties: “There is a shift between Bush’s policies and the Obama’s on this. Bush’s policy was to kidnap people, take them to Guantanamo or Bagram or some other torture chamber and try to extract some information from them. Obama’s policy is just to kill them.”)

Honest liberals more or less understand that the critics have a point; just that Paul is the wrong way to make it. The usual dodge is to argue, that some folks are just “civil liberties purists” and supporting Obama matters if you care about the Civil Rights Act, reproductive freedom and “the well-being of the American middle class.” Indeed, a strong supporter of Obama (ABL at Balloon Juice) basically dismissed the whole issue of covert wars and civil liberties as a sideshow: “So, am I monster for caring more about my uterus and the rights of minorities and the underclass than I am about the victims of drone strikes in a foreign land? Maybe. But I’m ok with it.” This stance is perilously close to the sort of argument that “Hey, rounding up the Japanese and putting them into concentration camps was bad, but FDR was great for race relations and unions.” Yeah, not such a great argument if you’re Japanese.

But those policing liberal orthodoxy ought to be careful since they seem to be projecting a bit of their own aspirations on a President who’s not that into them. On the issue of reproductive freedom, Obama is certainly better than the wretched extremists like Rick Santorum in the GOP primary, but by Democratic standards, he is clearly anti-reproductive rights (as the debacle on Plan B showed). And his commitment to civil rights was notably absent as one Republican-dominated state after another disenfranchised millions–many of them minorities, low-income and young people–with various “voter identification scams.” Fortunately, Attorney General Holder has recently rediscovered the Voting Rights Act, but the White House has hardly been a lion protecting voting rights even in the Old Confederacy. Caring about civil and reproductive rights and caring about Obama and the Democratic Party may, contrary to ABL, not be much of the same thing.

But the act of liberal projection (which must be policed in the coming election!) is clearest in that whole “whole-being of the middle class.” Clearly, the heresy here is not with the “Paul curious” progressives–none of them are likely to find Paul’s reactionary economic positions favorable, but that, like Taibbi pointed out, Obama and the Democrats aren’t really all that into the middle class, either. One might call this the “Tweedle Mitt and Tweedle Barack” heresy, which must at all costs be squelched given the Democratic tactic of running as “class warriors” for the middle class (Giggle. No, that trope doesn’t pass the giggle test). While Tweedle Mitt alleges to be a free-market purist he clearly favors “government-business” partnerships that use the coercive power of the state to deliver businesses customers. As for Tweedle Barack, it is no accident he “borrowed” his health care plan from Tweedle Mitt. Both Tweedles show an almost canine devotion to the interests of Wall Street and seem to think of unemployment not as a cyclical crisis but a structural transformation of the economy which can at best be remediated (through miserly unemployment benefits, a questionably stimulatory payroll tax reduction and very tepid infrastructure spending-Tweedle Barack) and at worst requires powerful efforts at lower real wages (through free trade and attacking unions–Tweedle Mitt). Both Tweedles seem far more enthusiastic about reaching “Grand Compromises” linked to cutting “entitlement” spending and means-testing Federal social spending than addressing the problems of rising income inequality and falling employment. After all, both Tweedles like the idea of “shared sacrifice”–especially since neither will be asked to sacrifice jack themselves, personally. Both Tweedles are big fans of the Federal Reserve and its lack of transparency with Tweedle Barack opposing the Paul/Grayson audit of the various Fed programs to shovel money into privileged banks. No wonder Dick Durbin of the Democratic majority leadership in the Senate admitted “The banks own this place.” Well, whatever happens in November, the banks will own one of the Tweedles.

It is true the Tweedles have very different tax policies (Tweedle Barack says he wants to raise them but only manages new tax cuts; Tweedle Mitt demands major tax cuts but is sure to raise them, especially so-called payroll taxes like his new idol, Ronald Reagan). My guess is Tweedle Mitt wins the Presidency because Tweedle Barack has been painted as a dangerous sochulist and such, but more importantly because he hurt the fee-fees of the Masters of the Universe by pointing out that they might be feline fatties, especially in doling themselves out big bonus checks while the economy they torched still burned. Tweedle Barack was right when he told these MOTs that “my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks” and that cannot be forgiven. It’s not that he shielded their criminality, but that he saw them as weak and MOTs don’t see themselves as weak.

One can certainly understand why Democratic partisans would find such comparisons dangerous. After all, Obama was supposed to initiate a New New Deal, or perhaps some of that old time LBJ war on poverty on stuff. Instead, it turned into Clinton’s first term and seems destined to replicate Carter’s only term. Yet good members-in-standing of the liberal commentariat basically are trying to explain away Obama’s obvious corporatist and pro-Wall Street leanings as political pragmatism. Despite the fact that guys with impressive prizes say “piffle,” this type of hand waving could be very politically dangerous. First, it damages the brand. Recent polls have shown that the term “progressive” evokes even more warm fuzzies than the word “conservative” which has got to be a first in generations. It certainly beats the term “liberal” like a rented mule–not least because the associations of the word “liberal” in the public mind–irresolute, elitist, and condescending–happen to be how a good many NPR tote bagger types come off. In fact, though NPR did not single-handedly poison the well on the term liberal through its snotty (and boring) news analysis (it had help from the New York Times Styles section and those contrarian pricks at The New Republic and Slate), it certainly allowed the morphing of the fighting liberals of the civil rights era into the “Fox News Liberals” of the 90s and naughts. ‘Nuff said about the dangers of degrading the brand, eh? And Obama is definitely the New Coke of left-center politics. A strong distancing from his meliorationist approach to the problems of capitalism, which is Rubinite to its core, is vital if there is to be any left of center politics at all in this country. Obama needs progressive encomiums much more than progressive politics needs him. As a vehicle for “change you can believe in” Obama, and indeed most of the Democratic Establishment, is a rickety old clunker indeed.

But secondly, the thing that those good liberals who don’t believe in Obama’s foreign or security policies do believe in, the pursuit of economic opportunity for all Americans and particularly the most disadvantaged Americans–that thing–Obama is completely uninterested in delivering. His “pivot” to deficit reduction in the midst of the worst job crisis in a generation is pretty telling here. Moreover, he believes in the magic education fallacy of American liberalism–that education can cure social stagnation and declining standards of living. That somehow with more standardized testing and magic bullets like charter schools, we can all compete globally and wages will rise. As people with long experience with educational reform–from both sides of the political aisle, I might add–have increasingly pointed out, that’s a lot to ask of underfunded and overtaxed school districts. Mr. Obama’s native state, Hawaii, cannot even afford to school its students as many days as it did a decade ago. The Obama “Race to the Top” is simply warmed over “No Child Left Behind” and investment in human capital, in the form of recent College graduates, face a grim employment market. Frankly, given the collapse of social mobility in America, it is unclear that improving education would do anything more than produce a more learned cadre of fast-food workers. So what are possible other Obama approaches? Providing good jobs with union membership on state-funded infrastructure projects? Oh, please. He bulked at that approach in the midst of a panic when he could have got a second Works Projects Administration through. Now he’s actually cutting the Federal workforce. Call me skeptical that he will even attempt to deliver on the soaring rhetoric of his Osawatomie speech. Last time we heard that kind of rhetoric was when he was running in ’08.

So, at this point what do liberals, what do progressives stand for? They stand for women’s reproductive rights but Obama is clearly willing to let those slide. They stand for diplomacy over belligerence but it’s a shame Obama doesn’t hold to those ideals in Iran, Pakistan or Libya. They stand for union rights, but Obama. . . oh, yeah; Columbian Free Trade Pact. They stand for mainstreaming undocumented immigrants, even while Obama deports these at a staggering and lawless clip (such as the deportation of a Houston African-American teen who spoke no Spanish to Columbia). They stand for uplifting economically troubled communities, but Obama seems reconciled to depression-level unemployment in those communities. And on it goes. Obama may be the lesser of two evils for thoughtful democrats and independents, but he’s pretty weak tea in dealing with society’s evils.

Partisans know this and must divert attention from it. And thus the panoply and ritual of this election season. This pretense of hearing the unvarnished truth of Midwestern farmers while an open auction for sleazy money is in full swing. Each wing of the inside-the-beltway Establishment huffing and puffing about their profound differences (please insert here a line about “the narcissism of petty differences” if so inclined) so that voters stay on the reservation of bipartisan consensus. For folks who don’t like the GOP and what it stands for, elections are great moments to pretend the Democrats don’t stand for a disturbingly high number of precisely the same things and that they are right and moral to vote Dem. Pretty much the same thing happens over on the GOP side. There are profound differences between the parties, but mostly on social issues and in a declining empire with little hope of social advancement and economic security for most people, these social issues become the major issues that define us. What is the matter with Kansas? Nothing that isn’t the matter with everyone else.

Reasonable people can accept that Obama is just about the only sort of half-loaf they’re going to get in this increasingly elitist and oligarchic political system but Obama will be gone soon enough–either in a year or five. None of the basic problems that beset American life are likely to be solved, or even seriously addressed by him, in that tenure. There are no revolutions, velvet or otherwise, on the horizon to address these ills thanks to a surprising degree of transpartisan consensus that nothing can be done. Except maybe send more people to prison. Or bomb some more people.

But Havel recognized these little rituals of domination for what they were and perhaps folks like Taibbi and Lessig do as well. The corruption is so profound, the rot so obvious and the humiliation of pretending otherwise so farcical that maybe this is the season we recognize politics is not changed by elections and certainly not by comically rigged ones such as the Iowa caucuses, which would make even a crook like Putin blush. Perhaps living in truth demands we first and foremost admit the inadmissible, that this entire political circus is precisely what it seems, a distraction. Ignore the silly season and focus on the real election–the auction taking place off stage. And for those who want to police the political discourse on what is and is not “permissible” or “important,” please, stop being silly yourself. Maybe if a bunch of Democrats backed Paul on the basis of his anti-imperialism, it might pressure the White House to modify its aggressive militarism (that is, after all, what politics is–pressuring politicians to adopt your preferred policies). Maybe if a bunch of donations went to anti-Wall Street politicians, like Elizabeth Warren rather than Obama, he’d get the message on his corporate-coddling policies.

The old saying is that “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line”–and this is precisely what the farcical primary season is supposed to produce: lock-step submission to authority and adoration of the proper candidate. This attitude is deeply insulting to citizenship–Republicans should tell Paul that they don’t think, contrary to Boss Gingrich, his ideas are too dangerous to listen to and Democrats should President Obama that they expect, no demand, he draw contrasts with Romney not through words but deeds. Then, and only then, America’s silly season might, just might, get serious.