Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The NObama left

For most of the left the range of support for Obama has ranged from a passive "I'd prefer it if he'd beat the other guy" to an over the top enthusiasm at an historic turning point (like me), but a small section of the left has a different take on the US elections, one that actively discourages a vote for Obama, no matter what the consequences.

Part of this attitude is best demonstrated by that brilliant Mao anecdote when an American (I think it might have been Nixon) rebuked him for China's one party system. He smiled and said "But America has a one party system too, but with typical capitalist extravagance you have two parties." I respect that.

It comes from years of Repubocrat policies where it's been difficult to slide a cigarette paper between the two parties. But right now you could park a bus in the gap between the tickets, and then some. The neo-conservative agenda of the Republicans isn't just a set of different flavour policies, like the difference between Coke and Pepsi, it is a fundamentalist agenda of war, privatisation and imperial dominance. Obama might not be a pacifist but he ain't George Bush neither.

When Dick Cheney described McCain as a "man who'd looked into the face of evil and not flinched" it's difficult not to smile and secretly insert your own joke. After all Bush and McCain were two men who publicly celebrated McCain's birthday as the worst excesses of Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the south. There is something worth despising there and it's well past time they were gone.

The NObama left is intimately involved in the struggle for women's rights, but given the VP choice between an anti-abortionist who believes in abstinence only sex ed and a man who's helped draft some of the most progressive legislation on women's rights in his long years in congress there's just a shrug. No difference?

To the campaigners who have tirelessly campaigned against further military adventures into Iran there's a clear choice between candidates who sing "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" and a candidate that has consistently advocated diplomatic routes even when he was taking enormous flak for it. But no - to the NObama left it's all lipstick on an imperialist lapdog.

The Left Press

How does this section of the left try to relate to the new mood for fairness and change? By trying to spread cynicism. Now don't get me wrong - there's plenty to criticise, but there's a big picture too. If we look at this particular section of the US left press we see that their tone has been extremely negative with little emphasis on genuine alternatives.

The US paper Socialist Worker, which as it happens is often an interesting read, has shifted over the last few months from outright attacks on the Democrats (and occasional asides about the Republicans) to a more nuanced position around whether Obama will be able to "hold his nerve" when in office. I suspect the editorial line has had to shift because readers and sellers just weren't impressed. But when on their election night page they say "There isn't much suspense about who will win the presidential election" I mean - what?!?! On what planet???

The anti-capitalist magazine Left Turn takes that up a notch and says "As libertarian leftists, we view presidential contests as egregious reaffirmations of the state," and so the current issue literally has no coverage of the election at all. It just isn't important enough to warrant even a tiny articlette. That's pretty egregious in itself.

When Patrick Cockburn says of Biden (the third most liberal voting Senator) "In his single person is combined everything that is loathsome about the Democratic Party" it isn't simply a genuine political disagreement, there's a pathology that's removed the ability to make a proportional political analysis. So it isn't that much of a surprise when he goes on to say of Obama, "In the event of Obama’s victory, the most immediate consequence overseas will most likely be brusque imperial reassertion" which is mirrored by the likes of Ian Sinclair on Zmag who denounces "Obama's hawkish pronouncements". They don't think he might, if nothing else, be constrained by his base who want a withdrawal from Iraq then?

It's one thing to point to Obama's willingness to reinforce the troops in Afghanistan or his politically mainstream position on Israel and argue for more consistent peacenik policies but to paint him as the devil just doesn't make sense, and it certainly doesn't recognise genuine advances when they occur. A sense of perspective seems utterly foreign to these voices, and their reward is to become ever more marginalised.

So what of the progressive alternatives to Obama?

There are only two alternative candidates worth mentioning. First there's Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party. She made her name questioning the official story of the 9/11 attacks and her campaign disgraced itself when she claimed, with no evidence what-so-ever, that thousands of prisoners had been executed during Hurricane Katrina. Even large numbers of Greens aren't supporting her. She certainly is not a threat and not that interesting either.

Then we have the hardy perennial Ralph Nader who is in a no win situation. We're annoyed at him when he's irrelevant, and annoyed at him when he makes a difference to the outcome. That's a tough place to be, but he's got broad shoulders. He needs them with that big head of his that he has to carry around.

Both campaigns have been dominated by lack lustre, top down organisation in an election where the main news is the sheer scale of grass roots political participation and neither campaign has been able to impress with any strategic direction, essentially confused by a progressive mood that they've been entirely unable to understand.

The candidates have been posturing to the left but in fact they have fed cynicism and impotence, asking people to sneer from the sidelines as history happens, maybe you could put a hat on that stuff and call it radicalism but it don't smell right from here. I don't want to overstate this but they are doing a good impression of people who mistake being miserable for being left wing, or one's who are so concerned with never being wrong they end up never being right.

Whilst we're not talking big numbers here (last time Nader achieved 0.38% of the vote and the Greens 0.1%) this masks two important factors to the outcome. One is where those crucial votes are cast, which could make a real difference in tight states. The second is that this also hides the effect of having left candidates breeding indifference in the electorate. Whilst it's unlikely someone like McKinney will persuade many people to vote for her she can reinforce in people's minds the idea that there's no point voting at all in this election. That's extremely damaging to progressive politics.

Whilst the Democrats have been trying to raise the expectations of ordinary people and empower them to be a motor for change the leftist candidates have concentrated on being special people "speaking truth to power", the isolated politics of the moral high ground. As voters literally queue for hours to cast their ballot inspired by the slogan "we are the change we've been waiting for" that momentum can and is being used for social good - but if the left wants to be part of that it has to make friends with it.

No previous presidencial candidate has been a community organizer, or anything close to it, and no recent presidential campaign has been as bottom up as Obama's. In a time when the political landscape is being reshaped the left candidates' campaigns reek of sterility and old style dogma.

I've no quibble with those who say Obama is not superman or Jesus, it's true, he's better than that. He's real and he opens up the possibility of change - I do have a problem with those who'd rather have clean hands, in order to be distanced from anything Obama does wrong than get their hands dirty and make the world a better place even by one degree.

Did it have to be that way?

Whilst Nader's campaign doesn't even have the pretence of building up an organisation he does have interesting things to say. In one third party debate (with the Constitution Party candidate) he rebuked left wing Obama supporters for giving away their vote too easily. In a nuanced discussion he stated that voting Obama was not wrong but that we should use that vote to pull him to the left, and that can only be done if you are prepared to vote against him. "Don't give them your vote too easily" he implored.

It seems to me that this points the way towards how an effective and relevant left liberal candidacy could have looked. Whilst Obama represents a real window of opportunity many of the other Democrats standing for election are just more meat for the grinder. A good presidential campaign could have been used to promote decent alternatives at the base - trying to build strong local hubs whilst supporting the overall message of change, and influencing it.

In much the way that Sian Berry's campaign for London Mayor successfully positioned itself as part of the big picture, essentially as a supporting candidacy for Livingstone and Green assembly candidates, it enabled the Greens to hold up their vote in extremely difficult circumstances where the left and Liberal Democrat votes were pulped between the two big hitters. A left third party candidate could have openly called for a vote for Obama where it matters (in my view almost everywhere) whilst generating real interest around local candidacies of good progressive independents.

The two independent senators, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Saunders, show that it is possible to get electoral success outside of the big two but neither of the left presidential candidates have a swath of local campaigns to support. They have no base and don't appear interested in developing one. Unlike for the Democrats for them it's all about the top job, and I tell you, it takes something to be more heirarchical than the Democrats.

A movement that can hold the government to account is more than a talking head - it has to be made up of committed and engaged rank and file activists. The anti-war mobilisations, the women's movement, the trade unions and all those other social currents are jam packed with talent but if the left doesn't orientate on them in a way that doesn't just disregard the big issues they'll never tap into that fantastic resource.

In the words of Joe Trippi "We are all busy with change today. But the status quo will not be wiped away with this election. The real work to change this country begins anew tomorrow. After today no one will ever doubt again that you have the power — so use it. Be proud of what your work has accomplished, but change is going to take more hard work from all of us."


James said...

I'm not sure that the article you quoted from Left Turn can be said to represent an editorial line, since it wasn't an editorial and was written by someone from the Institute of Anarchist Studies. Further, the article is all about relating to the grassroots activism the Obama campaign has inspired. Eg "Nevertheless, this election supplies us the opening to reject statism in a way that is sensitive to the historical moment and prefigurative of a directly democratic society" (emphasis added). Their reasons for not focusing on the elections in the current issue may well include the fact that the Left Turn network doesn't have a common position on the election, and that there's hardly a shortage of election coverage from every left position elsewhere.

I don't know much about McKinney's campaign, but if what you say is true, its a real shame, as her canditure seemed at first to be an excellent opportunity for the US Green Party to break out of its middle class whiteness. And even if she run a bad campaign and turned out to have some strange ideas, that doesn't mean the Green Party was wrong to run a candidate. The publicity I've seen for the campaign emphasised the importance of voting for McKinney to build for the future an organisation that can challenge the two-party pro-corporate political system. That sounds about right to me.

Jim Jay said...

Well I didn't say it was an editorial but it is a featured article - but I don't want to quibble as I was raising a few examples of a general trend and so I'm happy to be relaxed about where Left Turn are coming from if they are (incidentally I dip in to the mag every now and then and it can be pretty good).

On McKinney - I think it is a really wasted opportunity - I'm not against third party candidacies in principle nor even at this specific election but you don't get my support just by being a third party and having green in your party name. There is a social shift taking place and they are on the outside looking in.

Whether campaign literature has talked about building an organisation or not (and let's face it all parties do that, not just radical ones) that aim has certainly not been achieved and the top down, uninspiring tactics have certainly been part of that.

With both McKinney and Nader it just feels like an ego parade to me, although perhaps that's unfair on them.

Jim Jay said...

Oh - I missed one of your important points - sorry.

"Further, the article is all about relating to the grassroots activism the Obama campaign has inspired."

The article's from July and they never talk about the election again, it seems an odd way of relating to that activism - although I concede what they might be doing is getting involved and introducing ideas as they go, although that's clearly not the group position.

James said...

On the ego thing, with Nader I think that's right. I haven't seen enough of McKinney to be able to judge. But certainly the US Green Party seems from a distance to be a bit of a mess, though some of that is no doubt down to the peculiar political system they have in States whereby the dual party system is virtually written into the constitution.

I hope Left Turn does have some 'where we go from here' post-election analysis in the next issue. But I know from experience that elections can be some of the most difficult times for pragmatic anti-capitalist networks to come to any kind of consensus (eg vote Green, vote Respect (pre-split), don't vote organise positions all within a group that on most issues finds it easy to agree...)

Hannah said...

I am 22 and I'd like to capture my thoughts before America either elects a president who its first 26 presidents could have legally owned, or brazenly subverts the very ideals it was founded upon by manipulating numbers in a final embarrassingly overt goosestep towards corporate totalitarianism.

I am nervous. And not night-before-the-swim-test nervous or even night-you-lose-your-virginity nervous, it's a low rumbling primal panic which I can only liken to Star Wars panic. Disney panic. The edge-of-your-seat-terror that makes you wonder if Skywalker's doomed after he refuses to join Darth Vader and drops down into the abyss, if the wicked octopus or grand vizier or steroid-pumping-village-misogynist is going to wed/kill/skin the dashing prince and then evil people in dark funny costumes are going to take over the world... if it wasn't a movie of course.

And tonight it's not. It's not a movie and yet I feel like Obama might as well be wearing an American flag cape while a decaying McCain, in a high-tech robotic spider wheelchair wearing an eyepatch and stroking an evil cat, gives orders to a sexy scheming Palin who marches back and forth through their sub-terranian campaign lair in four inch thigh-highs and full-body black leather catsuit bossing around the evangelical ants with a loooooong whip... umm... is this just me?

Anyway, the point is that things feel weird folks. I have friends who have peed in waterbottles to keep from interrupting a Halo-playing marathon who got off their asses/couches to volunteer for the Obama campaign not once, but many times. Friends so cheap their body content is at least 1/3 Ramen Noodle who donated a good deal of their hard-earned cash to the campaign. People have registered to vote in record numbers, and yet, something just doesn't feel right. I think we should stop congratulating ourselves for just voting. To vote is a privilege which people have died for, and I think there's a whole lot more to be done for the country than to simply help win an election every 4 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of man-hours spent on both sides by good-intentioned people who want to make a difference in an historic election, so many resources and voices and energies devoted to a single day. After tomorrow, half of that is going to have been a waste. And I can't help but wonder what could have happened if all that muscle had been put towards something else, and what will happen to its momentum after the election has come and gone. Shouldn't we be donating our money to good causes whenever we can? Helping people who don't have? Dedicating some of our time to contribute to making the country which provides for us a better place? Of course a power shift is a hugely significant step on the path to great reform, but worrying about this election has been a wakeup call for me:

Even if Obama wins, we have not "won." This isn't a movie and we can't toss every greedy lobbyist oil fatcat bigot down a reactor shaft. I think if we dedicate ourselves to the ongoing welfare of the country as much as we have to the outcome of this election, we'll have a much better shot at coming closer to the overwhelming good the liberals hope Obama will usher in, but which no mere mortal could fully realize alone.

Which brings me to the other side. I've heard a lot of people claim that if McCain wins, they're leaving. I heard the same thing about Bush's reelection, and his unelection before that, and nobody seems to be leaving. And that's fine. Because as much as I complain about certain political happenings, atrocities, etc., I really do like it here and I suspect most other people do too. We have New York and Hollywood, purple mountain's majesty and sea to shining sea, we created jazz and country music and baseball and cars and lightbulbs and computers and that movie with hundreds of animated singing Chihuahuas! I mean who among the shivering Plymouth pilgrims ever imagined ordering hundreds of animated singing chihuahuas onto a magical box from an invisible information superweb?

The point being, if things don't turn out the way I want tomorrow, I feel compelled, as a college-graduated adultish-type-person, to take a stand. And if I'm going to leave I'm going to leave. But if I'm going to stay I'm not going to sit around whining like I have for the past 8 years. It's like when I don't clean my room because it's dirty and then I blame the dirt. So in my very indecisive way, before you and your screen, I'm declaring my intention to make some kind of stand in the event of -(Ican'tevensayit)-, and encouraging you to consider making one too...

Jump the ship or grab a bucket?
Wasn't everything so much easier back when the worst possible affront to your values was a PB&J sandwich cut diagonally with crust?

Anyways, I guess what I'm saying is that if we're going to stay on board, we should probably be generous with our time and resources when times are tough even more than when the hero saves the day. Because what if he doesn't? And what if he can't? If we're serious about real change, election day should only be the beginning of "Yes we can," not the end.

Hannah Friedman

Rupert said...

i AGREE with the Joe Trippi quote. (See http://twitter.com/RupertRead ).

i find your comment that somehow McKinney or Nader even having the temerity to stand at all is somehow a disincentive to ordinary citizens to vote at all pretty outrageous and bizarre, in fact almost incomprehensible, Jim. [Otherise, a good and interesting post: thanks.]

do read Alexander Cockburn's article. Yes, what is of course needed now is a mass movement to keep Obama from being as dodgy as he has been much of the time since the Primaries ended.

And on foreign policy: Outflanking Bush on Afghanistan is a pretty worrying sign. Never forget the very dangerous thing about Democrats: they generally spend ages (and money and lives) trying to prove their virility. Biden is a likely case in point.

Having said all that: if I were in a swing state today I would definitely have voted for Obama. McKinney has performed poorly in the campaign. There is some chance that tonight is a new start, and not merely a false dawn. The hope that has been generated by Obama's extraodinary and mostly very clever campaign might yet be its own salvation: if it can be leveraged into a movement that stops Obama from selling out more than he already has, and maybe even pull him back some.

[A lot of course will depend on the Senate -- that is what one should really watch closely tonight! I predict that the Democrats will come amazingly close to 60 seats.]

Jim Jay said...

Thanks Hannah.

Rupert - I think I said that I'm for a third party candidacy done the right way - so I'm not against them standing i just think it was a wasted opportunity. Otherwise why was I talking about Sian, Liebman and Suanders?

My criticism is that their approach was problematic not that they stood for president.

anyway we seem to be agreeing on lots so I wont over labour the point.

DarrenJ said...

While I agree with Rupert that McKinney and Nader had an absolute right to stand, sometimes you just have to take the view that there are so few political opportunities in contesting an election that it actually undrmines rather than reinforces the political message you are trying to get across. Just as the England & Wales Green Party should have realised we were going to get so screwed standing in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election that it wasn't worth standing, the US Greens should have made a similar call about the 08 presidential race and simply concentrated on Senate, Congress and local seats.


Rayyan said...

Nader referred to Obama upon the latter's election as a potential "Uncle Tom"(http://crooksandliars.com/nicole-belle/you-stay-classy-nader).

John Pilger, someone who I normally hold in high regard, had this to say:

"Barack Obama is a glossy Uncle Tom who would bomb Pakistan."

I respect the work these men have done in the past, but to resort to racial epithets is unacceptable.

Cynthia McKinney is a complete loon, and I am embarrassed that anyone in my party had anything to do with her.

Since when did being left-wing mean that one had to have no common sense or decency?

scott redding said...

Nader said that Obama has a choice. He can be Uncle Sam and stand up to corporate interests, or he can be Uncle Tom, and cave in to the half of his donations that came from larger donors. The 10% most engaged from the Obama campaign (6 million strong) need to make sure he sticks to the principles that got him elected. We need to look carefully at Obama's positions over the next year on biofuel, on coal, on missile defence (late September, the 2nd debate), and on continually using the word "kill" to talk about Osama Bin Laden.

Rayyan said...

He's American - of course he will use words like "bomb" and "kill" from time to time. I don't like it and I won't stick up for it, but what else can you expect from a Harvard-educated Democrat - he has to cover his anti-war tracks somehow. I read that article, and the thrust is right - but I'd like to see its author run for US President. She might get as many votes as McKinney.

Any reference to Uncle Tom, given the scenario, is unacceptable.

Half of his $650 million came from larger donors? Please provide some evidence of that. And yes, I've seen the Tribune article about his bundlers - but again, what else was he supposed to do? Go out onto the streets and beg?

You're right - the people who elected him need to put pressure on him to change. But at least there's a means for them to do that (http://change.gov, as well as the bloggers movement) - can you imagine trying to suggest the same for a Clinton or Bush government?

Let's be grateful for the opportunity.

scott redding said...

- The way the Americans define "large" donors is those who have donated over $200. 50% of his donors were that kind.

- More than 600 donors contributed $25 000 or more to Obama in September alone, roughly three times the number who did the same for McCain.

- The infomercial paid for itself: "On October 29th and 30th, during the 48-hour period around its airing, the campaign reported having collected more than $1.2 million in checks of $1,000 or greater."

The size of Obama's small donations isn't a myth. But he raised a heckuva large amount from large donors as well. And it's up to him who he listens to for the next four years.

Jim Jay said...

On the money scott's right - it was basically half and half above and below $200.

I think any camapign that wins over leading republicans and is seen as more sound on the economy is going to attract some rich support - what he's been careful to avoid is taking money from lobbyists.

At the end of the day he raised more money and cleaner money than we have come to expect from Presidential campaigns. It wasn't all under $200 donations - but that's where the big story is.

Mberenis said...

Great blog! Did you hear the good news??? New government grants and relief for lower and middle class, initiated by the Obama administration prior to inauguration.

Obama's Bailout for US

What do you think?

Jim Jay said...

Hi Mberenis - thanks.

I've decided to withhold a firm opinion until the full shape of the new administration is clear.

It would be really easy to make a new reaction with each scrap of news - sometimes to the good sometimes to the bad (I'm looking at you Ms Clinton) - and that's what a lot of people are doing understandably. All power to their elbow.

I've decided to give it a few weeks before jumping in, although having read the piece on "Obama's green start" today in the Independent it's quite difficult to restrain myself!