Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Most Liberal?

By Ben Trott

A reoccurring theme during last Friday’s first presidential debate was the two senators’ ‘records’. At one point, McCain claimed that Obama was the ‘most liberal’ (read: leftwing) member of the Senate, adding the quip, ‘It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.’

As part of the New York Times’ ‘Check Point’ series, fact-checking statements made during the presidential election, they ran a real-time, live blog during the debate. The blog quickly noted that the National Journal had indeed provided data illustrating that Obama had the most liberal voting record in 2007 (he was ranked 16th in 2005 and 10th in 2006). However, it also pointed out that the Congressional Quarterly had used a different index and found Obama has voted with President Bush almost 50% of the time.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

'Pro-Choice, Anti-Palin'

By Ben Trott

There’s been a reasonably huge backlash amongst independent, Democratic and even Republican registered women voters in the US in response to McCain’s naming of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Two quick examples.

On September 3, the Women Against Sarah Palin blog was launched. It began with a letter sent by the blog’s editors to 40 of their friends and colleagues, asking them to respond to the announcement that the Alaskan governor was to run as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. Many of the letter’s original recipients forwarded the email, and the site has now compiled over 160,000 responses from US women. The site explains,
‘We are not in the habit of criticizing women in the public sphere, as we usually feel we should support our female compatriots with as much encouragement as we can. However, Sarah Palin's record is anti-woman. Feminism is not simply about achieving the power and status typically held by men. It's about protecting and supporting the rights of women of all classes, races, cultures, and beliefs. Palin's record and beliefs do not align with this. She was chosen by John McCain specifically because he believes that American women will vote for any female candidate regardless of their qualifications. He is wrong.’

Secondly, coinciding with Sarah Palin’s ‘Welcome Home!’ rally in Anchorage on September 14, an ‘Alaskan Women Reject Palin’ demonstration was held nearby. (Incidentally, the anti-Palin event was (marginally) bigger than the Welcome rally!) Carrying home made signs with slogans like ‘Pro-Choice, Anti-Palin’ and ‘Polar Bear Moms Say: No Palin!’, around 1,500 women gathered in front of the city’s Loussac Library. There’s a report from the demonstration here (check out the photos of the placards too!) and a short video clip below.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More on 'Race', Racism and the 'Bradley Effect'

By Ben Trott

Following on the from my post the day before yesterday, summarising Andrew Hacker’s NYRB article

A newly released poll, carried out by
Knowledge Networks on behalf of Associated Press and Yahoo!, hit the headlines yesterday (CBS News, Fox 59 (Indianapolis), Guardian). It examines the extent to which ‘race’ is likely to play a role in the forthcoming election. The full results of the poll can be read here. Looking at the raw data, as it is presented in the PDF, perhaps the most immediately striking thing is that 9% of all respondents (and 10% of White respondents) admitted that the fact that, if elected, Obama would be the first Black president would make them ‘less likely’ to vote for him. (9% and 6% respectively said it would make them ‘more likely’.) The extent to which the 'Bradley Effect' (see previous post) continues to play a role will, then, obviously be crucial.

In an
article by Nate Silver on his electoral projections website, FiveThirtyEight.com, he argued that during the Democratic Primaries, Obama in fact performed better than expected in polls, by an average of over 3%. He is sceptical that the Bradley Effect is as much of a factor as it once was. It is not, Sliver argues, that race/racism does not play a role in US elections (it does!), but ‘the Bradley Effect is not an argument about whether people vote based on race. It’s an argument about whether people will lie to pollsters.’ Regional variations, Silver argues, should be kept in mind,
‘Recall that the Bradley Effect phenomenon describes covert rather than overt manifestations of racism. It may be that in the Northeast, which is arguably the most "politically correct" region of the country, expressions of racism are the least socially acceptable, and that therefore some people may misstate their intentions to pollsters. By contrast, in the South and the Midwest, if people are racist they will usually be pretty open about it, and in the West, which is nation's most multicultural region, there may be relatively little racism, either expressed or implicit.’
Obviously, Silver is being rather speculative here, particularly in relation to the existence of racism in ‘multicultural’ regions. However, the Pew Research Centre, a Washington DC-based think tank, published a report in March 2008 documenting regional variation and a phenomenon to which Silver also refers, dubbed ‘the reverse Bradley Effect’. Silver suggest that this is when Black candidates outperform polls, perhaps as a result of Black voters being reluctant to admit to (presumed) White pollsters that they are about to vote for a Black candidate. The Pew report documents both a Bradley Effect, in states such as New Hampshire, California and Massachusetts, which have relatively small Black populations; and a reverse Bradley Effect in states such as South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia where Black voters make up a proportionally greater bloc within the electorate. Some anomalies are also noted.

But back to the Yahoo!/AP poll…

Perhaps the other most immediately striking set of statistics were the survey’s findings that 7% of respondents admitted that they would be ‘upset’ by a Black family moving in next door(!), 10% by a Black person serving as president, and an astonishing 25% by ‘Black leaders’ asking the government for equality in the workplace.

A Yahoo!/AP
article presents a much more thorough evaluation of the data and is well worth looking at. It explains that the survey found that 40% of Americans (including many Democrats and independents) hold ‘at least party negative views towards blacks’, whilst ‘more than a third of all white Democrats and independents – voters Obama can’t win the White House without – agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks’. The survey also claimed to discover that whilst plenty of Republicans held prejudices too, this was not the reason they were voting against Obama – they would not vote for any Democrat. ‘Statistical models derived from the poll’, the report said ’suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice’. Although it conceded that, ‘in an election without precedent, it’s hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.’

Part of what the pollsters claim to have attempted to do was measure ‘latent prejudices’ amongst White voters. More than 25% of White Democrats, for instance, agreed with the statement ‘if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites’. Those agreeing with this statement, perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey found, were much less likely to back Obama than those who disagreed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Andrew Hacker in the NYRB, 'Obama: The Price of Being Black'

By Ben Trott

Obama’s candidacy – and everything surrounding it – has of course been interpreted as meaning or revealing various things about 'race' and race relations in the United States today. There’s an interesting piece in the forthcoming (September 25) issue of the
New York Review of Books by Andrew Hacker who teaches Political Science at Queens College. It draws upon a few different problematics. He talks, first of all, about what the election campaign has revealed so far. Secondly, he discusses the challenges – in connection to various issues surrounding race and race relations – which lie ahead for the Obama campaign. And finally, the article concludes by making a few suggestions to the Obama camp. Manuela Bojadzijev, who forwarded me the link to this piece, pointed out that what’s interesting about the text is that it doesn’t so much deal with the symbolic and discursive dimensions of racism, which are obviously important (and have received a relatively large amount of attention so far), but with it’s ‘physicality’.

Here’s a very quick summary of the article. It is, however, well worth reading in full (click on the first link above).

The article’s author begins by explaining that polls during the Democratic Party primaries showed 15-20% of White voters admitted race had played a role in informing their voting choices (which most likely, of course, in some cases also means that Obama’s being Black was a reason
to vote for him). There’s every chance, however, that the real proportion of voters for whom race had played a role was somewhat higher. The article cites the so-called ‘Bradley effect’, named after Tom Bradley who, as LA’s Black mayor, ran in the 1982 Californian gubernatorial race. He was well ahead in polls prior to the election, but the end result came back very different. The phenomenon has reoccurred with other candidates since. Gary Younge, last week, wrote of the ‘Wilder effect’ – the difference being that Doug Wilder won the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial race, albeit with 8.5% less of a margin of victory than polls had predicted. Perhaps most surprising of all, the article notes, voters not only lied to pollsters ahead of the election, but also claimed in exit polls to have voted for one candidate when they had in fact voted for another only moments earlier.

The second focus of the article is on how whilst, for a long time, there had been a tendency towards increasing voter turn out (extending franchise, lowering the voting age to 18, etc…), the tendency today is in the opposite direction, apparently intended to stop/limit voter fraud. Increasingly, new restrictions have been introduced, such as the requirement to present photo ID at polling stations. Hacker highlights the consequences of this for different constituencies. He cites the example of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, where 53% of Black adults have no driver’s license, compared to only 15% of White adults. ‘Similar disparities’, the survey he quotes explains, ‘will be found across the nation’. There are of course alternative forms of ID to driver’s licenses, but there are considerable obstacles to obtaining them. (In a recent article in the Guardian, there was a reference to Democrats already being nervous that Republican challenges to voter eligibility may cause the build up of off-putting cues at polling stations on November 4 – so it seems this is an issue currently being taken seriously)

The article also runs through a number of other ways in which Black voters might be disqualified, including due to the proportionally higher number of Black men and women in jail. The US currently has 2.3 million people incarcerated. The ratio of Blacks to Whites is 6:1. (The US Department of Justice have more precise figures here). Apart from in Maine and Vermont, prisoners do not have the right to vote. And in many states, many of those released still face a ban or serious restrictions. The article cites a report which says that 13% of Black men cannot vote for various reasons. In three states, 20% cannot vote because they are or were locked up.

The problems facing the Obama campaign are, however, two-fold. One aspect is that noted above. But whilst a huge Black turnout (involving surmounting these various challenges) would almost certainly help Obama, this would still not be enough to win him the election. White voters, the article argues, need to be persuaded to vote Democrat in large numbers. And it is not since 1968 that the Democratic Party have been able to win the support of the majority of Whites (in 2004, 58% of White voters voted for George W. Bush, and 41% for John Kerry). The author attributes this partly to the earlier opening of the Democratic Party as a ‘biracial’ party having raised concern amongst White voters, seized upon by Republicans. He cites a separate article in the
New York Review of Books explaining that some White voters ‘were never going to vote to put a black family in the West Wing any more than they would go on living on a street that got too integrated.’

Towards the end of the article, Hacker explains, ‘I've been careful so far not to use the word “racism”. The term itself has become an obstacle to understanding. Once white people hear it, they tend to freeze, and start listing reasons why it doesn't apply to them. After all, most Americans admire Oprah Winfrey, like Tiger Woods, and respect Colin Powell. Yet racism persists, albeit not publicly voiced, especially in the belief that one’s own is a superior strain.’ However, he continues, ‘not many whites regard Barack Obama as their inferior; effete or arrogant perhaps, but they don't fault him on intellect. To some, indeed, he may seem too much the intellectual.’ He then returns to an earlier theme in the article; namely, that some White voters feel like they have had to ‘bear the brunt’ of affirmative action. Hacker cites the cases of Grutter and Gratz who, in 2003, petitioned the Supreme Court to end the policy, after having been turned down by the admissions department of the University of Michigan after their places were supposed to have been given to lesser qualified Black candidates (the article notes: ‘What is rarely mentioned is that neither Grutter nor Gratz were outstanding candidates. To put it crudely, they weren't high on the ‘white list’.’) And many voters, the article says, feel similarly disgruntled. ‘Resentment of perceived black privilege’ then, Hacker explains, may also play a role in White voters’ voting decision; as may, even, ‘fear of some kind of racial payback.’

In order to deal with these twin challenges (obstacles to ‘getting out the Black vote’, and the reluctance of White voters to vote Democrat, let alone for a candidate who looks like Obama), Hacker proposes going further than Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky has suggested (he proposed the building of ‘multiracial coalitions’). Two parallel campaigns, Hacker argues, need to be built,
‘a quiet one to assure a maximum black turnout, and a more public one to make the most of the white backing the Obama-Biden ticket already has… His black supporters will know what is going on, and not take this as a rebuff.’

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who’s Smarter?

By Stefano Harney

What is a symbolic victory? What would it mean to say Barack Obama has scored a symbolic victory?

If Barack Obama wins the election for President of the United States of America I will be happy for my nephews, for my nieces, and for my god-daughters. They will finally see someone who looks like them in the White House, in something other than a
Hollywood disaster film. I will be happy for my mentor Professor Martin L. Kilson who spent his life in the struggle, and for all those like him who probably did not expect to live to see the day. It will be a symbolic victory.

But something will bother me about the term symbolic victory, a term that in common usage seems to signal something less than a real victory. I am not bothered by connotations of the term in one sense. When Barack Obama ran against
Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther and community activist, for a Congressional seat in Chicago, Obama said there was not much between him and Bobby Rush politically. The people of the district did not believe that, and they voted heavily against him. Bobby Rush still does not believe that, and he recently gave a poignant speech, after his bout with cancer, pleading with Obama to embrace the cause of national health care. Obama probably did not believe it either. In truth, there is not much between Obama and the Clintons, or John Kerry, or Al Gore politically. In fact, you would have to go back to Richard Nixon of all people to find any light between Obama and another President or Presidential nominee, and with Nixon, that light is to Obama’s Left!

So if a symbolic victory means that there will not be a change in the political direction of the country, just a change in image, this phrase doesn’t bother me. Don’t forget, Bill Clinton finished the Reagan-Bush agenda,
ended welfare, bombed Iraq and Sudan, and destroyed numerous civil liberties. And he never delivered on his promise of national health care. We can expect the Obama administration to finish much of the Bush agenda. There will be no national health care, no national child care, and no guaranteed annual income. The war on terror will continue. NATO will continue to expand. Free trade will continue without free movement.

This phrase symbolic victory bothers me nonetheless because I think it is also about the degradation of something important, of the visual, of feeling, and of sound, at the hands of policy, rational choices, and sound judgements. And with this degradation there is a message about regulation. Think about the two narratives that run below this election. The first is that everyone ought to move past image to policy. In this narrative both Obama and Hillary Clinton have symbolic value but what is really important is that they are smarter than George Bush. So the point of race or gender is to prove that you can see past it in order to see who is really in command of policy. This is connected to the feeling of embarrassment among some parts of the educated classes in the United States that George Bush was not smart enough to represent them globally.

The second narrative is about those who cannot see past the symbolic. Now this narrative is usually directed at white folks in West Virginia. But it is also directed at supporters of Obama who are said to be enthralled by his image, regardless of his qualifications. Here too there is a source of embarrassment for parts of the educated classes in the United States, but the divisions of race show up in this embarrassment with white people being embarrassed about other white people and black people being embarrassed about other black people. If only people would see past race or gender to focus on policy, and on who is smarter. In this logic of the embarrassed, Obama deserves white folks vote because he is very smart, but he also deserves black folks vote for the same reason, not because he is black. Getting past the symbolic is about a kind of national maturity, a giving over to the rationalities of regulation. And it is also about who should run things, the smart ones.

But how dumb is it to realize nothing changes in United States Presidential elections but the symbols? And conversely how smart is it to become a policy wonk in a country where nothing changes? Whose smarter here, the embarrassed or the embarrassing?

More importantly who has a hold of the materialism of the symbolic here, of its real effects in the world? Who can grasp it in its own right? Those who ask us to get past it and focus on policy, on who is smarter, and who is less embarrassing? Or those who feel a power in the symbolic, those who know that the problem with Obama is not that he has called for change, but that he has linked this to policy, to being smarter? If only Obama’s leadership were actually inspirational, like Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s leadership, but it is tied to policy, which is to say finally it is tied to reminding people about who is smart and who is dumb, who will make policy, and who will be policed. It is tied to regulation by the smart ones.

On the other hand, a leadership that served as a way to make legible all the self-organising, all the resistances, all the flights of the embarrassing would be a truly symbolic leadership, and it is the kind of leadership the embarrassing keep hoping for. And they hope for in Obama, or even, because of their racism in some cases, they hoped for it in Hillary Clinton. But instead comes the injunction: recognize my right to regulate you!

Hope is something to feel. In these matters a symbolic victory is one I can only hope for.

Biog: Stefano Harney teaches at Queen Mary, University of London.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Naomi Klein on the Relation Movements Should Have to Obama

By Ben Trott

Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo) has a comment piece in today’s Guardian. She sets out the reasons why she believes Obama was unable to more aggressively attack the Republicans over their response to Hurricane Katrina as Gustav threatened New Orleans during their Convention last week. On the one hand, she argues, Obama’s pitching towards the middle class (rather than those worst hit by Katrina and most threatened by Gustav) reduced the incentive to address what she calls ‘the most dramatic domestic outrage in modern US history.’ On the other, she argues that whilst Gustav showed, ‘by reality, not rhetoric’, one of the primary reasons environmentalists oppose off-shore drilling (during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 743,400 gallons of oil were spilled in 100 accidents, according to the statistics quoted in the article), Obama was not able to capitalise on this (McCain recently ‘flip-flopped’ and came out in support of drilling, and his new running mate, Sarah Palin, is a well known advocate), because he had already compromised on the issue himself.

The article touches on a theme which has been present throughout Klein’s commentaries on the Obama candidacy and the election campaign so far: that potential Obama supporters and/or Democratic voters should not simply fall in behind ‘their’ candidate, but use the space opened first by the primaries and now by the election campaign in order to apply pressure. The example of off-shore drilling, addressed in this article, shows, she argues, that the Republican base have been much more effective in steering their candidate than Democrats and the (liberal-)left ‘theirs’.

Back in March, for example, amidst the primary battles between Clinton and Obama, she argued – in an article co-authored with Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater - The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Private Army – against the anti-war movement endorsing either candidate (realistically: Obama). Instead, they argued, pressure should be applied to push both candidates towards trying to out-do one another in competing to become ‘the anti-war candidate’. She cites, as an example of the victories that can be won by this strategy, the case of Clinton’s sudden support for a ban on Blackwater and other private security firms’ deployment in Iraq after The Nation criticised both candidates for failing to have done so thus far.

More recently (see the video clip below), Klein made a similar argument in a speech delivered to the National Conference for Media Reform on the day in June when Clinton conceded she was pulling out of the race to become the Democratic Party candidate. In her speech, Klein appeals to her audience to build pressure on Obama and push him towards pledging (for example) a fuller withdrawal from Iraq, dealing more seriously with the challenges posed by climate change, and closing the income gap. She talks about FDR’s New Deal reform package of the 1930s resulting not from his being ‘a great guy’, but from pressure from below. He sold it to the elite, she argues, as the only alternative to revolution. Her audience’s job, she suggests, is to build a similar movement, allowing Obama to argue with those on his right that he has no choice: that he needs to end the war, end foreclosure, and create a ‘Green New Deal’ because ‘the credibility of the whole system is on the line’.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Launching this Blog

By Ben Trott, Blog Editor

Welcome to ‘Change We Can Believe In?’, the Red Pepper blog on Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy (scroll down the page to read the posts so far).

Last week, Obama finally became the Democratic Party’s official nominee for the 2008 US presidential elections. For many, his candidacy, and the movement that surrounds it, has indeed been the source of optimism for ‘change we can believe in’. Elsewhere, it has been greeted by scepticism. Both the sincerity of his claims, and the potential for any kind of ‘meaningful’ transformation to be ushered in via the Office of the President of the United States have been called into question. Others still have argued that there is much more he could say and do, pledge and – perhaps – implement.

This blog provides a space to debate these issues. What kind of changes might an Obama presidency mean in the fields of racial, gender and economic relations? What could it mean for international relations, world order and the ‘war on terror’? And: what space – globally – could an Obama presidency open and/or close for social movements to enable a shift to the left?

To address these questions, I will be commissioning comment and opinion pieces between now and November (for day-to-day news and coverage of the election campaign, I recommend checking out the links under ‘Election News Coverage’ on the right). I will also, from time-to-time, perhaps posts links to articles and discussions elsewhere on the web. Everything will be open for your comment!

In terms of the posts so far, the blog kicked off yesterday with an edited transcript of a debate held at the Brecht Forum in New York in June about Obama and the left. The participants were Jo-ann Mort (CEO of Charge Communications and a contributor to the American Prospect), Ta-Nehisi Coates (author, The Beautiful Struggle and a former staff writer for the Village Voice and Time Magazine), Gary Younge (columnist for the Guardian and The Nation), Doug Henwood (author of After the New Economy, editor of the Left Business Observer, and a contributor to The Nation) and Betsy Reed (Executive Editor of The Nation). The transcript originally appeared in the August/September issue of Red Pepper.

Other contributions so far include Graeme Chesters (co-author of Complexity and Social Movements and co-editor of We Are Everywhere), Rayyan Mirza (from the Green Party branch in Lewisham, London), and Tadzio Mueller (an editor at Turbulence: Ideas for movement).

Chesters explores the echoes Obama's candidacy seems to be finding with two earlier presidencies (or rather, one presidency and one candidacy); both of which he argues to be fictional: on the one hand, Matt Santos' campaign for election as the successor to Jed Bartlet on TV's The West Wing; and on the other, the cultural appropriation of JFK's actual presidency in the early 1960s.

Mirza's entry explores the lessons which can be learned by progressives from Obama and – moreover – the movement which surrounds his candidacy. Whilst Mueller argues that it is not only Obama who has been backsliding on his pledge for 'change', but also the left in consistently lowering their expectations in what can be hoped for from an Obama presidency, whilst never quite making the step towards investing their desires elsewhere instead.

And so, the debate has been opened.

If you’d like to submit an entry, get in touch with a short pitch at RedPepperObamaBlog@gmail.com

Editor Biog: Ben Trott is a writer, editor and PhD student based in Berlin. He is on the Editorial Board of the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 – Present, being published by Blackwell next year, and co-edits Turbulence: Ideas for movement.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Left and Obama: Love’s Labour’s Lost?

By Tadzio Mueller

The story of the left’s infatuation with Barack Obama follows an established storyline. So many hopes that ‘this time’, things will be different: that Obama won’t be like Lula in Brazil in 2002 – who came to power on a Socialist platform only to bow to the power of global finance once in office; like Tony Blair in 1997, when a generation of progressives who’d grown up to hate Thatcher and the Tories could not but rejoice; the Green Party coming to power in Germany in 1998, where – no use in hiding it – I, too, had high hopes; the African National Congress in South Africa – backed by Communists, but soon a key driver of Neoliberalism in Southern Africa. So many hopes dashed. And yet, the infatuation continues…

Since the beginning of his run for the presidency there has been nothing but backsliding – but not by Obama. To call his to-ing and fro-ing on the campaign trail ‘backsliding’ would assume that what is done and said in election campaigns had any significant relationship with what will be done once in power. Policy in the US is largely shaped by a democratically unaccountable ‘power elite’. The election campaign, on the other hand, is a sophisticated game played according to fairly self-contained rules: during the primaries, Democrats move to the left, Republicans to the right, to mobilise the party faithful, while during the presidential run, both move to the centre to appeal to swing voters. So let’s assume for now that what he says in public, whether it’s the stuff leftists like (his
speech on race), or the stuff leftists don’t like (his embarrassingly Bushist endorsement of ‘faith-based’ welfare initiatives, or his war-mongering Berlin speech: more troops to Afghanistan please!), doesn’t really matter that much.

No, the backsliding has come from the left: first, people hoped that he would really
do something different – until they remembered that the US political system was more or less designed by a bourgeoisie that wanted to make sure it could keep any unwanted ‘popular’ demands for change off the agenda. In spite of this initial disappointment, many on the left continued supporting the Obama campaign with a fervour seen more often at powerful mass demonstrations than in front of the TV, watching a US-election campaign. But the goalposts had shifted: now the hope for change no longer rested with Obama himself, but with the energy his campaign would inject into dormant social movements, and into previously unmobilised constituencies. Particularly the latter would be able to project their political desires onto the figure of Obama, in a way that would spill over beyond his person and candidacy – seeing as he could, once in office, never satisfy all those desires for change he mobilised in his run. This excess of movement energy would then serve to energise a new cycle of struggles in the United States and beyond, of which new progressive hopes could be born.

But two realisations shattered this hope: first, that to mobilise popular desires for change in order to focus them on a leader who presents himself as an ‘outsider’ is a politically pretty indeterminate move. Or more to the point: Fascism also rests on this kind of relationship between popular desires for change and charismatic leadership. Second, that popular hopes for change, once mobilised and then unfulfilled, can just as or probably more easily turn into cynicism and despair rather than actual social transformation: remember the anti-war movement in the UK, which staged the country’s largest ever political demonstration, only to find that it couldn’t change a thing. The response was demobilisation and cynicism, not an excess of movement energy.

But no matter, those on the left who root for Obama have already moved on. Having first abandoned the idea that he would actually
do anything different; and subsequently the idea that he could mobilise energies that would reach beyond his campaign; they have now had to resort to the pretty depressing fallback position that Obama would make a good enemy. Never mind that the same could have been, and was said, about ‘W’. If Ben Trott argues here that an Obama presidency would be more imperial than imperialist, what he is in fact saying is that the most we can hope for is a recreation of the political constellation of the late 1990s, where Clinton’s globalist drive was part of the political context within which the alterglobalisation movement emerged.

But without really noticing or admitting it, the admirers of Obama have thus almost betrayed their sweetheart: to call him ‘the lesser of two evils’, to argue that his policies would simply provide the left with greater room for manoeuvre, is to quietly ditch any notion that this campaign is special; that the ‘energy’ that people have felt at Obama rallies was more than a flash in the pan, was in any way more emancipatory than that felt at a football game or rock concert. Come on friends and comrades, you can do it: dump him!

Because then we can finally get on with the important business of developing political strategies for the post-Bush era. Beyond simply pointing to the return of the old in this new ‘imperial’ era, what will actually have changed? Under Clinton, ‘human rights’ on the one hand, and ‘free trade’ on the other were to two big stories that legitimated the extension of the global web of authority,
Empire. Today, free trade is pretty much a dead letter, and the currently crucial global negotiating process (after the entirely predictable collapse of the Doha-Round) revolves around climate change, which both candidates have portrayed as an ‘important issue’. We’re not heading for a re-run of 1990’s-style free market fundamentalism and humanitarian intervention. Rather, we’re witnessing the emergence of a global authoritarian eco-Keynesianism, where governments (national or global) will subsidise a new green round of capitalist development, and will engage in ecological intervention. Domestically, we’ll hear more and more calls for self-limitation and austerity, legitimated by a politically manipulated sense of an impending climate and ecological crisis that, far from being solved, will be integrated into this new global capitalist architecture as its driving force. How we respond to and shape these developments is the real issue we should be debating. Not some teenage crush on Obama.

Biog: Tadzio Müller lives in Berlin, where he is active in the emerging climate action movement. He is an editor of Turbulence, and in order to survive teaches political science at Kassel University. tadziom (at) yahoo.com

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Obama Campaign: A Progressive Sourcebook

By Rayyan Mirza

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has proven to be one of the major political events of our time and progressives everywhere can draw a number of key lessons from it.

speech to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November 2007 provides a useful starting point when judging his policies. In it, Obama delivers a superb analysis of the trajectory of US politics over the last thirty years, highlighting how a divided political system and the influence of corporate power have blocked any solutions to the problems that continually dog American society.

He outlines what needs to be done: replacing a healthcare system that provides no cover for 47 million people with one that covers everyone; ending the gulf between rich and poor by continually raising the minimum wage and improving education for all children; and restoring America’s reputation abroad by withdrawing troops from Iraq, pursuing diplomacy with foreign leaders, closing Guantanamo Bay, and leading world efforts to combat climate change and poverty.

In order to do this, he believes America must move beyond the “battles of the 1990s” between “red” and “blue” states to unite around common causes: indeed, the great achievements of past American presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt were only made possible when the nation was brought together. Obama presents a combination of idealism and pragmatism, suggesting progressive outcomes can be forged but only when consensus has been reached.

Lesson one: We can only beat the biggest challenges when we assemble the widest possible coalitions.

Some of his policies deserve serious criticism from progressives, but it is not so much what he wants to do with the power of the presidency than how he has campaigned for it that we can really learn from.

Spreading his core message via viral videos on
YouTube and existing online communities like Facebook, he has combined internet technology with the kind of door-to-door field operation he learnt during his years as a community organiser. Most Obama events are not directly organised by his own staff, but results of how he has encouraged his supporters to run their own activities, such as during the Unite For Change day of action, facilitated by his website that acts as a one-stop-shop for anyone wishing to volunteer or donate to his campaign.

strategy to register voters and campaign in all fifty states aims to end the old red/blue distinction and is nothing short of revolutionary given that presidential candidates traditionally focus on “swing states”. Whilst benefiting from some big backers, his campaign really relies on more than 2 million individual donors, most of whom have contributed small sums of US$200 or less: without them, he would not have won the nomination and could not hope to win the general election. An infrastructure has been built from the ground up that will allow ordinary Americans to campaign for change long after this election is over, matching his rhetoric.

Lesson two: We must use technology to help people build campaigns that belong to them.

In politics, if a person’s origins form an integral part of the narrative they weave around themselves, then few stories can be as compelling as that of Obama himself. Born to an American mother, and a Kenyan father he hardly knew, his life has been a journey of self-discovery: from the sands of Hawaii to the fields of Indonesia, from the streets of Chicago to the townships of Kenya and back again, he embodies the search for a place in the world that lies at the heart of the American dream.

His beautifully written
biographies have been instrumental in establishing his identity with the American people as someone who eschewed the traditional path to power by giving back to the community when he could have made millions on Wall Street. When there is a growing consensus among the nation that politics has to change, he has become a symbol for that desire for change. His timely treatise on race and many others demonstrate his uncanny ability to both articulate the mood of the moment and envisage a better future. Such qualities have characterised him, and by extension, his campaign.

Lesson three: We must inspire the best in others with strong personal narratives.

Biog: Rayyan Mirza is a campaigner for the Green Party in Lewisham, where he is also the Chair of the Green Party group and a Trustee of the Students Union at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at http://rayyanmirza.wordpress.com.

What Change Can We Believe In?

By Graeme Chesters

What is at stake here as Barack Obama argues is change, ‘change we can believe in’. My question then is simply, why does Obama think we stopped believing in change in the first place and what grounds if any are there to believe that change at the top is change to believe in?

Let’s start with an echo of the present that occurred in the near past, before going back a little further in political history. As all well-read
West Wing aficionados know, Barack Obama is the new Matt Santos, who was the new Barack Obama in the first place. Both of whom, of course, could be the new JFK.

As you may remember, in the final series of the West Wing ‘President-elect’ Santos is the young inexperienced Hispanic candidate who narrowly triumphs over his rival Arnie Vinnick (an ageing socially liberal Republican - déjà vu times two) through soaring rhetoric and a post-racial political appeal built upon a message of youth, integrity and change. As a number of people commented at the time, the parallels between Santos and Obama are extraordinary. That is until you realise that Eli Attie - producer and sometime writer on the West Wing
based Santos on the youthful Illinois politician who he’d seen speak in 2004. The same politician who is now the Democratic Party candidate and is following the script for a narrow win in November. A case of life imitating art imitating life, an interesting distraction, or a reminder of the continued power of cultural narratives associated with the ‘American Dream’?

My inkling is that this simulacrum, this aspect of something existing as a simulation of something that never was in the first place, might be informative for those imagining Obama offers the hope for change that has otherwise escaped us, or that was somehow lost along the way. For the Obama campaign is also consciously constructing itself as part of a political narrative of hope associated with another ‘fictional’ Presidency, that of John F. Kennedy. I say fictional because the cultural appropriation of JFK as fallen saviour by
Oliver Stone and others is now a resource for the collective political imagination. Affecting a feeling of lost potential with a sense of possibility – a belief that the Promised Land was once in sight and all we need is the leader who can show us the way again. This is a story far more powerful than the counter-narrative of JFK as a ‘cold warrior’ who flirted with McCarthyism. It is amidst this loss and this potential, the fictional future represented by Santos and the fictional past represented by Kennedy, that the Obama campaign unfolds. This is the basis of any hope for change and it is instructive because of that.

But of what interest is this simulacrum when the political battle lines are being drawn? Surely the challenge of the left is to critique Obama for moving away from the grassroots by supporting
Federal immunity for private companies involved in government wiretapping? Or perhaps to push for confirmation of his challenge to land grabs by oil companies as we begin to contemplate the implications of Peak Oil?

The problem is that such political skirmishes obscure the big question, our desire to be led, to have the weight of social change transferred elsewhere. For the ‘never was’, in this instance the Santos campaign, gives rise to the question of why the left stills believe in the ‘seldom has’ - social change from the top. For if the West Wing is illustrative of anything, beyond the mawkishness that even the best US drama manages to produce, it is that electoral politics is the pastime of elites. Shiny, happy people in the service of an office of state, wherein the weight of history, the ‘checks and balances’ of government and the future calculations of sustaining power map the possibilities of the political sphere. In this vision US electoral politics is a huge playground for the brilliant, bright and connected to explore, from lobbyists to strategists to pollsters to politicians. And one which is ceaselessly reproduced as an effect of power, that elusive, transitory and complex potential that polishes the desire of those who would wield it, and which appears illusorily to reside at the end of the electoral rainbow, if we could only navigate its arc.

In this world, politics inhabits the media; electoral office is premised upon consent derived from the production of affects amongst the electorate. These include the promotion of identification and affinity with politicians who are chosen, or schooled, to reflect the normative values of their target constituency as evidenced by sophisticated polling techniques. This is achieved through the performance of ‘politics’ by politicians inhabiting strategically chosen media environments designed to signify accordance with the norms and values of key constituencies, rather than to challenge or promote change.

All of which is designed to deliver the prize of the fabled 100 day window for real change (read incremental reforms) before the Realpolitik of structural restraints, from daily eventualities to the management (media and bureaucratic) of the legislative programme become consuming of an administration’s time and energy. This takes place within a system of undemocratic checks and balances from corporate donations to the disciplinary role of party organisations and the influence of lobbyists in the production of a highly prescribed set of policy options.

So the question remains, is the idea of change we can believe in, prescient precisely because it identifies the need for a concept of politics beyond the competition between powerful elites, and if so what would this look like? What evidence is there that Obama’s candidacy can contribute to the emergence of a more critical and autonomous public sphere, where the self-organising dynamics of grassroots campaigns and movements can be protected, sustained and strengthened? On issues of social justice, climate change and peace it is these movements that have been at the forefront of resisting neocon and neo-liberal assaults and it here that the left can best use its energies. Changing leaders is not change we can believe in; but a change in our understanding of the political might be a start.

Biog: Dr Graeme Chesters teaches in the Dept of Peace Studies at Bradford University. He is the author (with Ian Welsh) of Complexity and Social Movements (Routledge: London) and was part of the editorial collective who produced We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism (Verso: London) www.weareeverywhere.org.

Holding Obama’s Feet to the Fire

With his appointment of a series of Clintonite economic and foreign policy advisers, Barack Obama has attracted fire from the American left. But does this mean that hope in his campaign for the presidency is misplaced? Doug Henwood, Gary Younge, Jo-ann Mort, Betsy Reed and Ta-Nehisi Coates debate the politics of Obama’s candidacy and the huge mobilisation of support behind it.

Doug Henwood There is something about the shift from the primaries to a general election that brings out the worst in a Democrat. First, there is the appointment of Jason Furman as an economic advisor. Furman famously argued that raising Walmart’s wage levels would force Walmart to raise prices, which would hurt the working class more than it would help them.

Furman is a Democrat Leadership Council (DLC)-style Democrat, someone out of the Clinton-Rubin summer school. [Rubin was Clinton’s treasury secretary and the DLC is a corporate-funded association of Democrat moderates, closely associated with the Clintons.] He joins Austin Gouldstein as Obama’s chief economic advisor. Gouldstein is famous for eulogising Milton Friedman, and for having been the top DLC economist.

Among that collection of ghouls, Obama recently announced his appointment of foreign policy advisors. They include former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who famously said that half a million dead Iraqi children killed by the sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration was a price worth paying. They also include Lee Hamilton and David Boren, two Congress people known for their protective attitude toward the CIA; Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security advisor; and Susan Rice, another Clinton leftover and cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq.

I can’t say that I was surprised by any of these appointments, because I never doubted that Obama would be anything but a loyal servant of the empire, but it shouldn’t get past anyone that thought he represented a fresh start.

I think that there is no doubt that the lust for Obama, the mania that he has inspired, the departure from rationality and critical thinking, does represent some fantastic longing for a better world, more peaceful, egalitarian and humane. He is not going to deliver much on that, but there is some evidence of an admirable, popular desire behind the crush, and those desires will never leave disappointed. But, as I have argued for many years, there is great political potential in disillusionment with Democrats.

The working class are really, really pissed off at their standard of living, and the way that the rich have got more than the rest of us. I don’t think that Obama’s administration would do much to change that. But never did that possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That is not what Obama means when he uses that word, but I think history can be a great artist.

Gary Younge Doug Henwood’s analysis would work best if Obama was standing in Sweden, or some other place where there was a large left wing that could support him wanting to turn left. He isn’t, he is standing in America and, for the best part of eight years, it has seen of one of the most reactionary governments that we have had for some time. You have to deal with the reality that exists, rather than one that you would like.

I think that most of the criticisms Doug makes of Obama are fine. But then you have to say, okay, Obama goes to AIPEC [America Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group] and he genuflects, like John McCain and Hillary Clinton, so let’s go support the pro-Palestinian candidate. But there isn’t one.

So what I think many on the left are actually arguing for, and there is a case that one can make, is just don’t stand in elections. That the whole thing is corrupt and bankrupt, and that is it.

But if you are going to stand in elections and you are standing to win and be viable, then there is a context there that Obama inherits and didn’t create. I think that it is very important to criticise Obama from the left. But if one leaves it there, then you don’t really get what I think is a crucial question for the left: how do we get from where we are now to this more progressive society? How do we get a better foreign policy?

Over the last eight years there has been a sense of despondency and frustration, and Obama’s candidacy is both the recipient of and a driver for the unleashing of that energy. There is a symbiotic relationship, I think, between Obama and his base.

The energy that you see in Obama’s base is among people who are desperate for something better, and that is what has enabled his candidacy to do so well. Which brings us to the question: are these people just deluded? Are we dealing with a massive, collective mania and false consciousness? Or do they see a possibility that they hadn’t seen in John Kerry or Al Gore?

The truth is that Obama has roused constituencies that had long been dormant, notably the black and the young. There is possibility in this – definitely the possibility of disappointment, but also the possibility of something better.

So we must ask ourselves two questions. First, are we going to abandon these people to disappointment, disillusionment and cynicism? Or are we going to engage them in a more progressive agenda that puts the pressure on Obama when he starts to flake? Do we provide him with critical support when he is starting to flake in certain areas already? Or do we decide cynical support or no support at all?

Second, who else? If you are on the left and you think that this is all delusional, all crazy, who else then brings 75,000 people out in Portland? Even for a half-way progressive programme, who else gets voter registration people working 12 hours a day in Louisiana? If not him at this moment, then who? Or what, or how?

Because in the five years that I have been here, and in the eight years since Bush came in, I haven’t seen as much possibility as I have now and if you don’t like this, you have to suggest something else. You have to go to Portland and say to those 75,000 people, you should be somewhere else. And they better go there, because otherwise all you are doing is sending them home.

Betsy Reed We are always looking at Democrat politics as both the more grass-roots and radical elements and the corporates, and these are very disparate elements. The former was in the forefront during the primaries in a very real way, in the form of the small donations that propelled Obama’s campaign, the sort of grass-roots, more progressive elements that have played a key role in bringing out those 75,000 people to those rallies, and really energising that black vote. This could completely revolutionise the electoral maths. There is discussion that a state like Georgia could actually be contested by Democrats.

That is nothing to shrug at, but the other thing that we have started to see more recently is that the corporate-Democratic hold on the party becomes painfully apparent when it shifts into general election mode. With the demise of the Hillary Clinton campaign, Obama has folded in that establishment element into his campaign, in particular with the hiring of Jason Furman as his campaign’s economic policy director.

If that is where we are beginning, it is pretty depressing. There have been some nods to the left. Obama’s people have mentioned the names of some progressive economists, but the people who are beginning to surround him now are similar to those who created the Clinton phenomenon. The key question is ‘what role can the left play?’ We should have some leverage based on the grassroots energy that his campaign really depends on – he needs those volunteers.

The Obamamania thing was thrown around a lot by Clinton supporters, but there is something to it; there is a bit of hero-worship. It’s hard not to get a crush on the guy when you hear him because he is an amazing talker. And there is this desire to believe in him and not really think about what might be going on, and what might be wrong with him, and how we might try to push him in our direction.

Jo-ann Mort I want to start by picking up on something that Gary said: ‘We can have a discussion like this if we are in Sweden.’ But in Sweden the social democrats lost power and the conservatives are in power; it just shows how weak the left is globally. Even where there has been pretty much left-wing hegemony all of these years, there is a crisis of what defines the left and where the balance of power is.

I have been incredibly excited about Obama from the beginning. It is an amazing thing that America would nominate someone like him, and do it enthusiastically, and that he in fact may end up being the president. Now, as someone on the left, did I see him, and the excitement that I feel for him, as part of my left-wing agenda? No. I have never been one to think that the president of the US is the standard bearer for the left.

However, I think that now, in 2008, having lived through eight years of the Bush administration, an Obama presidency is a prerequisite for there to be any left at all in this country, and certainly for us to have the power in terms of the unions, working-class issues and opposition to corporatist economics. The fact is that we, as the left collectively, are as weak as we have ever been. The only way that we are going to be able to build power is to have some breathing space in Washington, in the White House, that is going to make a difference.

I honestly don’t know if I can survive four years of John McCain. Just recently, I got an email to say that the US supreme court, Bush’s supreme court, made a decision that had struck down a California law that barred publicly-funded companies from speaking out against unions. We have a supreme court, a federal judiciary that is as anti-union as we could ever imagine, and then we have all of the regular Tory agencies against them. Bush has never had a meeting with the head of the AFL-CIO or the head of Change to Win, the two labour federations.

The current labour secretary thinks that her job is to investigate union leaders for corruption and block laws that would support workers’ rights on matters like health and safety in the workplace. So we need a good, elected Democrat in the White House, and I happen to think Obama is a centre-left candidate who will govern on the centre-left.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t do any of those things that Betsy and others have said in terms of keeping his feet to the fire. But we do have to look at the Jason Furman appointment in relation to how you get elected. This is still a very close election, but whereas McCain is moving to the right to sharpen his base – which to me shows that he is in trouble – Obama is moving to the centre, which is where you get the 50-plus-1 per cent of the votes you need to win.

The quick response to Furman’s appointment from trade unionists and others also made a big difference. Obama has pointed out that his economic team also includes Jared Burnstein from the Economic Policy Institute [a left-leaning think tank, which is close to the trade unions]. Robert Reich [Clinton’s labour secretary] has also been quite outspoken about the Furman appointment.

Do I have any illusions that the pro-Wall Street, pro-free trade agenda is not going to be the agenda leading the day? No, but that is because the labour movement is so weak.

The only way we are going to be able to strengthen the labour movement is to be able to strengthen laws, to allow workers the right to organise and allow workers to take back the power that they need. And I feel very strongly that the only way that is going to happen is to get Obama into the White House.

Ta-Nehisi Coates I’m going to talk about the most obvious thing for me, which is Obama as a black president.

We have to face the fact that at the end of the primary this man was commanding a 98 per cent majority in the African American community. To get 90 per cent of black people doing anything, much less going to the polls and going to a voting booth, that doesn’t involve Densel Washington, Electric Sly etc is a tremendous thing.

I have many reservations too. Obama is a man who is expressing nothing explicit, nothing tangible – a great racial transcendent, in fact, and this may offer an excuse to those who don’t want to talk about race to completely get out of the discussion.

Despite this, we still have to stand back and ask: what sort of condition are we in now? What sort of world are we in that he is commanding 90 per cent? What you have to face up to is that African Americans have really paid the price of the last eight years – when you look at Katrina, or the Iraq war.

The possibility of the most famous African American in the world not being an entertainer or a ball player is really encouraging. As an African American, you come home and what you see on TV is always bad news with your face on it, about a black person defiling some child, or getting arrested, always really bad news.

The idea that you come home, you turn on the TV and find Barack Obama on there beating the crap out of John McCain – I don’t know what that is worth, I don’t know how that measures against economic policy, or anything like that, but that is a cause for some sort of optimism.

I live up in Harlem, and everywhere you go there are Barack Obama posters. I was at this great event called ‘Real Men Cook’ this Saturday, and all the people who came up to speak had this great excitement and optimism in the African American community that I have not seen in a long time. For all of my criticisms of Barack, it is very hard for me to dismiss that and say that it just isn’t worth anything.

Doug Henwood When it comes down to it, Obama is just another Democrat with a sleazy real estate guy in his past, and the level of hope that people are mounting around him is just extraordinary to watch.

In terms of a president that can move us away from uncritical support of Israel – well, I’m afraid that a guy who’s middle name is Hussein is going to go out of his way to prove that he is not that guy, so I think that is another example of misplaced hopes.

Now people point to the degree of enthusiasm and support that he has drawn out, and that is interesting because the people who are so enthusiastic about supporting him are perhaps ahead of him, and perhaps ahead of what our judgment is of what the American population is willing to accept.

Maybe the working class really are pissed off, maybe they are ready for something more progressive than what we think they are, so that kind of mobilisation and enthusiasm is very encouraging in itself.

But I think that we need to prepare for the fact that these people are going to be very disappointed when they see what kind of government he runs. I think we have to be prepared for the disillusionment that comes, and be ready now, think about how we talk to people. It may take a year or two for people to realise how disillusioned they are but we have to be ready to talk to them when they are.

Gary Younge Well I think being on the left you are always prepared for disilluionment. That is the psychological nature of the left.

The challenge is really to be prepared for hope, and to be prepared for something that is actually better. It is really about the possibility – but not the certainty – that these huge numbers of people that you are seeing turning up aren’t deluded.

Maybe they have seen a vehicle for what they want. And the issue is, do we become a vehicle for him? Or does he become a vehicle for us? And those two things are not mutually exclusive, or assured.

That doesn’t mean we should be uncritical until Obama wins. In the UK, Labour tried the ‘just shut up and wait for the guy to get elected, everything will be fine’ line, and then we ended up with Blair, Brown and the most decimated left that we have had for years.

You shouldn’t give people a blank cheque. The left shouldn’t be taken for granted, and the idea that McCain moving to the right is a sign of weakness should be treated cautiously. Actually, Bush didn’t move to the centre. What Bush did was rally his base. And there is a way to win where you rally your base, and you get everybody out: that is actually how Bush won twice, not by moving to the middle.

Betsy Reed I think that there is some Obamamania out there. But I don’t think it is fair to say that he has run a content-less campaign. If you look at a lot of the speeches that he has given, he has a lot of ideas – although you might not agree with all of them. But in his challenge to trickle-down philosophy, he says there is something that government can do about the problems we face.

There is also his race speech about the legacy of racial pressures and what the responsibility of government is to respond to that. That is a different language from the one that we hear from Republicans, certainly, and it is a more progressive language than any we have heard from viable presidential candidates in my memory.

If you look back at Kerry, he didn’t even oppose the war. Sure, you can fault Obama for his war plan – I think that has been really under-scrutinised. In fact, Obama would preserve the green zone and the biggest embassy in world history. Basically, his plan would require anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 troops to remain in Iraq.

Despite this, Obama has a broadly anti-war agenda and a platform, an opening for the anti-war movement, if he is elected, to push him to end the war.

This is an edited transcript of ‘A People’s President? Barack Obama and the left’, a discussion at the Brecht Forum, New York, on 19 June 2008. Transcript: Jennifer Nelson and Lena de Casparis