A challenge to the status quo?

ELECTION 2008 is headed toward D-Day--the Super Tuesday primaries in roughly half the country on February 5--and for both Democrats and Republicans, the race to become the presidential nominee is up for grabs.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama is coming off a huge victory in South Carolina, on the strength of another record-smashing turnout of voters, especially African Americans. But Hillary Clinton has the advantage of a more experienced campaign machine and the support of most party leaders in the big states that vote February 5.

The Republican race is somewhat less in disarray than before--it looks to have become a two-way contest between John McCain, who nearly ended his campaign months before the primaries began because he ran out of money, and Mitt Romney, whose personal fortune is so vast that he'll never run out of campaign cash, to see who will be the last (white) man left standing.

The media will be filled to the brim with guesswork about what will happen on Super Tuesday. Lost in that speculation will be the bigger picture--what the outlines of Election 2008 so far say about U.S. politics.

To start with, consider the contrast of Election 2008 with Election 2004. After George Bush's victory--hardly by a commanding margin, though this time he actually won--the political and media establishment was united in concluding that we lived in "Bush country."

Nation columnist Katha Pollitt gave voice to the demoralized conventional wisdom among liberals that the right-wing majority in America had voted for "what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, 'safety' through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway president."

But the talk about "Bush country" was gone before the year was out. Bush's boast that he would use his "political capital" to drive through unpopular elements of his right-wing agenda, like Social Security privatization, came to nothing--and the crisis of the occupation in Iraq pushed his approval ratings into Richard Nixon territory.

The Democrats' victory in the November 2006 congressional election was an unmistakable repudiation of the Bush agenda--above all, the war on Iraq--and in spite of the failure of the Democratic Congress to do anything to end the war, this remains the backdrop to Election 2008.

Beginning with Obama's unexpectedly large win in Iowa, the one-word mantra of the campaign became "change." Clinton, the former Democratic frontrunner, hurriedly adopted it. So did a few Republicans--leading to the spectacle of ill-tempered scaremonger Rudolph Giuliani claiming to be an "agent of change."

As has always been the case in American politics, the rhetoric of the campaign trail obscures the much larger areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans--whether on the need to project U.S. power around the globe or the defense of the profits and privileges of Corporate America.

But there can be no mistaking the fact that the campaign this year has been framed by the mass popular rejection--extending even into the ranks of the U.S. business and political establishment--of right-wing rule under Bush.

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THE DISSATISFACTION with the status quo has played out within the Democratic race as well--as Obama's latest victory in South Carolina shows.

After eking out wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, the Clinton campaign team overplayed its hand in South Carolina with a series of cheap attacks and race-baiting designed to marginalize Obama as, in the blunt words of one Clinton staffer, "the Black candidate." The huge turnout for Obama--the first real blowout of any contest in either party--was a rejection of these underhanded tactics, and especially the cynical attempt to play on racial divisions.

Obama won overwhelmingly among Black voters, despite Hillary Clinton's courting of African American party leaders. But Obama ran stronger than expected across the state, beating Clinton among white voters aged 30 and under, according to exit polls. These were votes against politics as usual, as represented by Clinton.

So Obama is headed into Super Tuesday with as big a boost as he could have hoped for. But he still has to be seen as the underdog on February 5.

For one thing, notwithstanding Obama's recent endorsement by a few luminaries like Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Clinton campaign has the advantage of far greater support within the party machine, especially in New York and California, the two biggest states at stake on Super Tuesday.

But also, if Obama's biggest advantage is that people associate his opponent with the status quo, Obama himself won't present a genuine alternative. He could turn the tables on both Hillary and Bill Clinton--most obviously, by questioning the Clinton administration's record during the 1990s. But Obama won't do that--not because he's shy about playing hardball, but because he and Clinton, for all their differences in rhetoric and style, share the same worldview of the Democratic Party mainstream.

Obama speaks eloquently about the need for a political alternative and fighting injustice, but any examination of what he actually stands for underlines the fact that he is an entirely conventional Democrat, probably closer to the party's right wing than its left.

That's the awkward truth at the heart of the Democratic campaign--for all their bitter disputes, Clinton and Obama are almost indistinguishable in terms of their political stances, and neither one has more than a rhetorical commitment to genuine change.

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OBAMA'S SPEECHES about voters coming together behind him to accomplish change in U.S. society fit very closely with what we're encouraged to believe about how society operates.

Let any group of people organize to show their opposition to an injustice, and they're certain to be told to be patient--let the system work or get behind a political candidate who can advance their cause.

This is a myth about how political and social change takes place--every bit as wrong as Hillary Clinton's contention that Martin Luther King spoke well, but it took a white Southern politician like Lyndon Johnson in the White House to get civil rights passed into law.

U.S. history tells the opposite story. The demand for civil rights and an end to Jim Crow segregation was ignored for years by Republicans and Democrats--the Democrats, after all, presided over Jim Crow in the South. It was only when masses of Blacks moved into struggle that the political establishment was forced to act.

The same is true about the other political transformations of U.S. society that we see as the highlights of history. The end of slavery, the vote for women, the right to organize a union, Social Security and unemployment insurance--none of these happened because a politician proposed them, but because masses of people organized and struggled for them.

In most elections, the Republican candidate is likely to be to the right of the Democrat. But the distance between the two parties at any given point isn't nearly so large as the distance they travel together, depending on the political climate.

Thus, Republican President Richard Nixon launched more anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs than Democratic President Bill Clinton. That's not because Nixon was more liberal than Clinton. Rather, Nixon was under pressure to act from the mass social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s--something that Clinton never faced while in office.

As the historian Howard Zinn put it, "There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories."

This is why, for socialists, elections are only a small part of what we look to as "politics"--and that would be true even if we had a system where there was a genuine alternative at election time representing the interests of workers.

That's not to say that elections are a distraction, to be ignored by anyone who really cares about changing society. As Frederick Engels pointed out a century ago, "the most edifying squabbles" break out within the confines of mainstream politics, casting light on the real interests of the rulers and the ruled in society.

Election 2008 is showing the thirst for real change. Achieving that change, though, depends on the struggle from below.