The Twilight Zone election
With the presidential primaries underway, Republicans are racing to the right--and the Democrats hope they can win votes because they're not as bad as the other guys.
CAN'T WE vote them all off the island?
After a seemingly endless lead-up, the Republican game of Survivor to see who will be the party's presidential nominee looks like it will come to a quick conclusion with Mitt Romney as the winner. That's after only two primary contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire. But two has been more than enough--way, way, way more than enough--to see the Republican Party in all its toxic ugliness.
At every step, Mitt Romney and his fellow candidates have seemed to be in a competition to see who could be more bigoted and reactionary and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people in the U.S.
It's like they come from another dimension from the one where long-term unemployment hangs on stubbornly, and half the U.S. population either lives in poverty or scrapes by on earnings that classify them as working poor.
No doubt about it, the Republicans are a noxious bunch. And that's just fine as far as Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are concerned--because their strategy will be to position themselves as the "if-you-have-a-problem-with-us-just-look-at-them" party.
For the next 10 months, we'll be subjected to an endless series of appeals from Democrats to vote for them, not because of anything they've actually done for working-class and poor people--since they've done next to nothing for us--but because they're less repulsive than the troglodytes in the GOP.
It's not a new strategy, by any means. But as before, it conceals a fundamental reality about the U.S. political system: The Democrats don't represent the interests of the vast majority of people in the U.S., but instead are, with the Republicans, part of a bipartisan political establishment that agrees on much more than it differs.
That establishment, no matter which wing is in charge at the time, operates as, in the words of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
THIS WEEK'S New Hampshire primary held few surprises. Mitt Romney won by a comfortable margin, with Ron Paul just far enough behind in second that only his die-hard supporters believe he has a hope of winning the nomination.
Far more notable than the results was the fanaticism on display during the candidates' round-the-clock campaigning.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney, channeling Donald Trump, said in one speech, "I like to being able to fire people." Romney's campaign and even his opponents claimed the quote was taken out of context, but it seemed more like an unexpectedly candid self-assessment from a man who got filthy rich as the cofounder of a corporate takeover firm called Bain Capital.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich--the frontrunner for a brief few days in December before he sank to a dismal fourth-place showing in both Iowa and New Hampshire--issued a bizarre pseudo-challenge to the NAACP, saying, "I'm prepared if the NAACP invites me--I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks, and not be satisfied with food stamps."
This from the man who suggested last month that child labor laws ought to be revised to allow children in "poor" (read "Black") schools to work as janitors so they could learn "values."
Not to be outdone, the latest favorite of the Christian Right, Rick Santorum, also had a message for African Americans: "I don't want to make Black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
Santorum later backpedaled, claiming--it's true, we're not making this up--he never used the word "Black," but instead made a garbled sound that came out as "blarrgh."
In the end, it was no real surprise that Romney, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire and campaigned heavily there, and who continues to have a huge fundraising advantage over his rivals, came out on top. That's despite a barrage of attack ads from his opponents, especially Gingrich, about Romney's days at Bain Capital, when the firm made huge sums by taking over companies, "restructuring" them (translation: mass layoffs and stripping their assets) and then selling them off.
Romney's challengers cynically attacked him for "looting" companies. A doe-eyed Gingrich rhetorically asked: "Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?"
Well...yes. That's exactly what it's about, and every Republican candidate knows it. They all have their own ties to corporate money--witness Newt's $1.6 million in "consulting fees" from mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich and Rick Perry and the rest can talk all they want about "vulture" capitalism, but anyone with eyes to see can tell that they're all vultures at heart.
OF COURSE, for every snipe at each other, the Republican contenders aimed many more at Barack Obama, the secret socialist who practices "class warfare" and wants to "punish success." When you compare the wild rhetoric of the Republicans with the actual record of Obama and the Democrats, it makes you wonder whether they've crossed over into another dimension.
Any cursory glance at Obama's last three years in office shows the radical disjunction between the "change" he promised in 2008 and the policies he's delivered.
The Democrats do occasionally pay lip service to the working class, talking about corporate greed or the "hardships" that working families face--and as always, you can expect to hear a lot more of that as the election approaches. But when it comes to actual policies, everything that's supposed to be an advance for workers and the poor--like mortgage "relief" and Obama's health care law--have come with countless conditions and concessions, while the giveaways to Corporate America have been limitless.
Anyone who wonders why this is should take a closer look at the people Obama has chosen to surround himself with, from the start of his presidency.
For example, this week, the White House announced that Bill Daley, Obama's chief of staff for the past year, and a former member of both the executive committee of JPMorgan Chase and the Council on Foreign Relations, was stepping down and would be replaced by Jack Lew, chief of the Office of Management and Budget.
This isn't a leftward shift. Daley isn't stepping down because of a disagreement with the administration's ideological direction--but to take a leading role in Obama's reelection campaign, where his ties to business will come in handy in securing large donations from Corporate America.
Nor is Lew some sort of radical. Among other things, he's a former chief operating officer of Citigroup's Alternative Investments unit. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted, "For his work at Citigroup, work that included betting on the housing collapse, Lew received a salary of $1.1 million. After Citigroup received its $45 billion taxpayer bailout, Lew--two weeks before joining the Obama administration--received another $900,000 from Citigroup as a bonus."
Lew has cheerleaders among some prominent Republicans--like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who told Politico in 2010, "No one was more prepared and more in tune with the numbers than Jack Lew. He was always very polite and respectful in his tone, and someone who I can tell is very committed to his principles.'"
Many liberals will try to claim in the coming months that Barack Obama, in his heart of hearts, wants to support gay marriage, rather than publicly oppose it. That, deep down, he wants to challenge the banksters, rather than bail them out. That he cares fervently about working-class people having access to health care, rather than insurance companies having access to profits. And they'll make excuses--that his advisers have led Obama astray, or the Republicans have sabotaged everything.
But above all, you'll hear the drumbeat of "lesser evilism." You'll hear that no matter how disappointed you are in Obama, you have to vote for him to vote against the Republicans.
The Democrats know this is their ace in the hole. As Obama himself recently told an interviewer about his response to liberal criticisms of his administration, "I tell them what Joe Biden says: 'Judge me not as the Almighty, consider the alternative.'"
Accepting this logic means accepting that politics must remain within the narrow confines that are acceptable to the bipartisan political establishment. Rolling Stone magazine's Matt Taibbi captured the dynamic perfectly:
There are obvious, even significant differences between Obama and someone like Mitt Romney, particularly on social issues, but no matter how Obama markets himself this time around, a choice between these two will not in any way represent a choice between "change" and the status quo. This is a choice between two different versions of the status quo, and everyone knows it.
Last year, the Occupy movement showed people a different meaning of democracy--an alternative that really does represent change; an alternative that focuses not on electing this or that politician, but on challenging the system as a whole.
That's the kind of politics we should be building in this new year as the elections approach.