Obama's real constituency
Three years of Obama have clarified the role of the Democrats in a two-party system.
BARACK OBAMA is back on the campaign trail. But this is not 2008. This time around, he will need a different set of slogans. "Hope" and "change" have effectively been emptied of any content over the last three years.
Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.
Three years ago, Obama won the presidency because millions of people believed that his election would bring about profound changes. Predictably, people who needed things to change the most voted overwhelmingly for Obama--the greater the need, the greater the votes.
Some 95 percent of African American voters pulled the lever for Obama--so did 66 percent of voters under the age of 30. According to the Pew Research Center, Obama won 60 percent of voters earning $50,000 a year or less. Among voters who said that they were worried about being able to afford health care, 65 percent supported Obama.
So how are these constituencies doing? Are things improving for young people? For people of color? For those making $50,000 a year or less? For those worried about being able to afford health care?
During the last three years, by and large, if there has been any change for these voters, it has been for the worse. Unemployment for African-Americans persists at nearly twice the rate for whites. The Obama administration has actually stepped up the rate of deportations of immigrants. And those who are worried about paying for health care have even more to worry about now that the health care legislation Obama signed into law will mandate tens of millions of people to purchase insurance from private companies--which are planning to raise their rates!
And just when you thought we had hit bottom, along comes the budget battle. Now we have a $38.5 billion cut in spending that must be imposed in just the final months of the current fiscal year that finishes at the end of September. There are drastic reductions in social programs that Obama's constituents desperately need--for example, a $3.5 billion reduction in federal funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program.
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HOW CAN this be explained? Why would Obama agree to screw his core voting base? We're told that it has to do with the principled struggle between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans stand for policies that benefit the rich, and the Democrats stand for helping the working class. Therefore, for better or worse, we who are not fabulously wealthy are obliged to vote for the Democrats. If the Republicans seem to dominate, we're told to chalk it up to temporary weakness or strategic moves by "our" party.
But this explanation doesn't make sense unless you're prepared to believe that the Democrats, year after year, happen to be a collection of professional weaklings, nincompoops and nitwits.
Here's a better explanation: The Democratic Party's real constituency is the American rich. And it's not just that the Democrats are funded by the rich. At the highest echelons of the party, they are the rich. The apparent "weakness" of the Democrats in the face of Republican attacks is not "spinelessness" or lack of negotiating savvy, but a logical consequence of the reality that they serve the interests of the wealthy, while struggling to maintain the appearance of doing the opposite.
According 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, a clear majority of Americans--61 percent--don't want governments to cut social spending, but rather, to solve the deficit problems by taxing the wealthy. Obama has made some faint noises in this direction. But he has done the opposite of raising taxes on corporations and the rich in actual practice, and he just "negotiated" devastating cuts in government spending--the opposite of what a clear majority of people wanted.
Did he ever really consider a different outcome? After all, to wage a real campaign for taxing the rich would mean opening up a can of worms--for the rich. It would require a campaign of mobilizing popular forces behind the administration's proposals, and a strong public relations campaign to expose the unfairness of the current tax system.
Now, the Democrats read the same poll data that you and I do. They know that such a campaign would be immensely popular, and would help them in the elections. But there is another, overriding concern--the interests of their real constituency. An aggressive "tax the rich" campaign would mean biting the hand that feeds them--or, more accurately, biting their own hand. So don't hold your breath.
Many people suffered under the illusion that the horrors of the Bush years (illegal war, torture, attacks on immigrants) flowed somehow from Bush's personal nature--ignorant, nasty, etc. Surely, if he were replaced with someone different, then the policies of the White House would change.
In so many ways--some superficial, some less so--Obama seemed to be a profoundly different person. Bush could barely speak a complete sentence, and Obama was a college professor. Bush was a silver-spoon incompetent, and Obama was a bootstrapping person of color.
But instead of profound change, we have experienced profound continuity. The wars continue and are even expanded. The detention and deportation of immigrants continues and are likewise expanded. High-stakes testing in our schools has continued, and the stakes are raised higher.
What does this mean? It means we are not so much governed by particular individuals as we are by institutions. The Democratic Party, the White House, the Congress--these have always been institutions of a particular class...and it ain't the working class!
Understanding the class nature of these institutions helps us make sense of the profound continuity from one administration to another--even when there are very different personalities in charge.
Consider the 2008 financial meltdown. After years during which we were told that there was no money to rescue people from dire circumstances, a crisis emerged, and suddenly, trillions of dollars--literally!--were made available to rescue people.
Did these trillions subsidize food for the hungry? Did they pay mortgages and prevent foreclosures? Did they forgive medical debts or college loans? Were trillions of dollars mobilized to alleviate the suffering of anyone who makes $50,000 or less?
No, the trillions were made available to alleviate the "suffering" of banks and of bankers--people who were already fantastically wealthy. This rescue was George W. Bush's policy, and it was continued and expanded by Obama.
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DIE-HARD defenders of the Democratic Party might concede all of the above. To get your vote, however, they have one last resort'--the Republican bogeyman (and this time around, given the rise of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, it might be more appropriate to say "bogeypeople"). Surely we must admit that the Republicans are a genuinely frightening bunch of bigots! Isn't that reason enough to support the Democratic Party?
Yes, the Republicans are terrifying. But once you understand who the Democrats really are, and whom they truly serve, it becomes apparent why the Democrats need the Republicans. After all, without the Republicans, there would be no one to hide behind.
There is no better evidence of this reality than the fact that whenever Democrats win, the first thing they do is act like they lost.
After the 2008 election, the Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress. There was no need to compromise with the Republicans on anything. Yet Obama went out of his way to try to reach out to Republicans on every issue, from foreign policy to stimulus spending to the budget.
Why? We were told at the time that Obama was operating according to a high-minded ideal: bipartisanship. When it came to health care legislation, for example, we couldn't have single-payer health care because we couldn't build a new system "from scratch" and because Republicans would never agree. But without the Republicans involved in the debate, Obama's real position--loyalty to the powerful health insurance companies--would be much harder to defend to his constituents.
The Republicans now say they want to repeal Obama's health care law. However, as industry whistleblower Wendell Potter has pointed out, both sides of this "debate" are funded by the same health care industry giants.
Since the law requires Americans to purchase their product, insurance companies don't actually want the bill repealed--though they'll be happy if they can further restrict and undermine any of the new regulations that are supposed to be applied to them. "The court challenges and repeal efforts are, in reality," Potter writes, "a useful smokescreen for the big insurers, whose real agenda is to gut the law while preserving the mandate."
On this basis, Republicans--rather than disappearing into irrelevancy after suffering a landslide defeat in the 2008 election--were brought into nearly every major decision that this Democratic administration makes. They have been allowed to shape the "discussion" of every issue, tilting it ridiculously to the right.
But why does Obama need to hide behind the right? Isn't he a liberal? Why would he want politics skewed rightward?
The answer to these questions doesn't lie within the heart or mind of Obama, but with the needs of the American ruling class.
Ask the question a different way: Why might the American ruling class want politics skewed rightward?
In the context of growing international competition with the rising powers of China and India, the question almost answers itself. The American ruling class wants--or more accurately, needs--to lower the living standards of American workers. Compared to the people sweating their days and nights in China's iPhone factories, American workers are "overpaid." To compete, the ruling class need us to make do with less--much, much less. And, ideally, they'd like us to believe that this is a good thing.
Like the squabbles over the health care legislation, the budget "battle" between Democrats and Republicans only makes sense in this light. Each side puts up a big "fight" to satisfy their respective bases, but the real outcome is never in doubt. In the case of the budget, both sides have agreed to not really consider taxing the rich, and instead to frame the discussion around which social programs must be cut
The Republicans want to take an arm and a leg. The Democrats have a counterproposal. They're "outraged" that both limbs might be sacrificed.
"Cut off your arm, not your arm and your leg." That will be Obama's campaign slogan for 2012. And we're supposed to feel like he's doing us a favor. Worse, we're supposed to endorse it with a vote.