2008/01/04

After the caucuses

It's disappointing that John Edwards's solidly progressive campaign was beaten by Barack Obama's huge advantage in money, Obama's adulation among the media, and the surprising popular enthusiasm surrounding his contentless mantra of hope and change. Edwards is basically finished now. Despite winning second place, the media only talked about the first- and third-place finishers. The only chance Edwards had of breaking thru the media's indifference and hostility was by pulling an upset in Iowa. The media don't have much interest exploring corporate domination of politics or policies that might mitigate poverty or global warming, but they will respond to a big story in the horse race.

The good news is that Hillary Clinton was beaten even more badly than Edwards. The Democratic establishment's candidate lost in Iowa, where the establishment candidate is generally safe. Morever, she lost to a black man in one of the whitest states in the country, and she was even outpolled among women (Clinton got 30 percent versus Obama's 35 percent). However, Clinton is still ahead in the polls for the New Hampshire primary, which will be held January 8.

But does any of this matter to progressives? Obama's policy proposals are nearly identical to Clinton's, and both are tied into very similar networks of political and economic power (Obama's are based in Chicago rather than New York). Obama, like Clinton, is campaigning on platitudes and biography rather than the progressive reforms that might build momentum for positive legislative change after the election.

Despite the overwhelming similarities, on policy Obama is probably still preferable. His foreign policy advisers are demonstrably less bloodthirsty than Clinton's - even if the whole lot remain American supremacists. Obama has stated his willingess to meet directly with the leaders of America's designated enemies, while Clinton has criticized him for doing so and said that using nuclear weapons against Iran should remain an option. A final, far more significant difference is that Obama has called for the abolition of nuclear weapons while Clinton has avoided any clear statements on the issue.

If we could trust Obama to follow thru on even these few commitments, he would obviously be preferable to Clinton. But even tho Obama's voting record in the Illinois and US Senates has been fairly liberal, his policy initiatives have been pretty lackluster and there's no evidence he has any particular loyalties to a progressive agenda. My impression is that Obama is an opportunist - even his community organizing stint on the South Side might best be seen as Obama positioning himself for an anticipated run for mayor of Chicago (keep in mind those were the days of Harold Washington, when being an organizer would have made sense as a way into politics).

Nevertheless, Obama seems more open to a progressive agenda than Clinton, who remains rigidly attached to centrism in her own peculiar blend of elitist ideology and opportunism. If a popular movement for single-payer healthcare, high carbon taxes, or the abolition of nuclear weapons arose, I expect Clinton would be hostile but Obama might well be supportive. Obama may have the same DLC-type associations as Clinton, but Clinton grew completely out of those networks and has flourished within their warm embrace for twenty years, while Obama is still fairly new to politics and his loyalties may still be fluid.

We should also keep in mind the incredible popular enthusiasm Obama has generated. The sight of a politician summoning huge crowds and drawing previously nonvoting constituencies into the electorate hasn't been seen for forty years. If Obama wins the nomination and the election and chooses to pursue liberal policies, he has the potential to form a powerful new progressive majority. Under the right circumstances, this majority might even take the lead and push Obama onto a truly left-wing path. I think it's obvious that a similar scenario under a Clinton presidency is laughable.

I admit that a surging radical politics associated with Obama is pretty unlikely. But in strong contrast to the previous three elections of my adult life, 2008 presents us with some hope - because Obama as (potential) nominee is not a priori hostile to the progressive agenda and because the political climate in the country is so much better (talk of universal healthcare, for example, was strictly avoided by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry). With Obama we have about an even chance of turning things around - depending entirely on how strong popular forces are. With Clinton there is no such chance.

Progressives should use the election to mobilize people into grassroots organizations that present the Democratic nominee with hard and fast demands on healthcare, global warming, foreign policy, immigration, and poverty. They should make clear that Obama's rhetoric of unity disguises the antidemocratic forces that are a central component in his campaign. And they should prepare for the real fight, which is over the direction of the country once the new president, whoever it is, takes office.

1 comment:

naureen said...

I wrote a partial response on my blog, here.

since mine isn't a political blog, you have to get past those first couple paragraphs where i'm just rambling...