The Political Economy of the Elections
We’ve written often and pointedly about the crisis of the two-party system and the failings of bourgeois democracy. We have not, however, participated in the mania surrounding the current presidential campaign that has replaced professional sports and reality television as the daily obsession of the US public.
Our friends will remind us that political participation is a good thing. We agree that electoral engagement should be welcome. Many retort that much is at stake in the 2008 election cycle. We retort that much could be achieved in the coming election. However, we see the election, as it is unfolding, as a colossal lost opportunity that promises to deliver very little new to the working class beyond hypocritical, venal appeals that evaporate quickly after the election returns are secured.
That is not to say there are no differences. There are. Unfortunately, the differences are only within the options that the ruling class allows. It is not that we should not participate in these campaigns, but how the left should participate. Our efforts should be to inject advanced, progressive policies into an otherwise personality-based, sound-bite campaign. Rather than debating on the internet which candidate might take, in the best of all imaginary possible worlds, a reasonably progressive position, we should be engaging the candidates or their surrogates with our issues: An immediate end to the aggression in Iraq, single-payer health care, hands off Cuba and Venezuela, a moratorium on foreclosures, low-interest mortgages, public works jobs, etc. Does the Left make more of a difference by uncritically throwing its meager resources into the massive Democratic Party campaign or by prodding the Democrats towards a more progressive agenda?
While the undemocratic Democratic super-delegates have waited opportunistically to cast their votes for the candidate promising the better deal or showing the greater elect ability, many on the left have already thrown in their lot with one candidate or the other. Why? Do they think they cannot possible demand more?
Take, for example, the current media frenzy around the statements Obama’s former pastor has made. Why did the media, as a watchdog for the ruling class, insist that Obama dissociate from the leader of a church that the candidate attended for twenty years? All candidates espouse allegiances to some church or another. Clinton attends prayer breakfasts sponsored by the jost backward, reactionary members of the Congress. Candidates flock to appear with Taliban-like, medieval-thinking church leaders. Yet these are never at issue.
In Obama’s case, the problem is his pastor’s consistent, militant resistance to racism, US imperialism, and economic oppression. The usual bona fides do not count in this matter: Six years in the military during the war in Vietnam, a proper higher education, and religious piety. Reverent Wright commits the unforgivable sin of challenging the seats of power in the interests of the oppressed, the poor, and the weak. A careful read of Wright’s speech on April 28, 2008 before the National Press Club reveals a dedicated fighter in the struggle for social justice firmly in the traditional of Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois, and Martin L. King. In fact, absent the contemporary references, the speech could have been made by King.
What does l’affaire Reverend Wright show?
For those who believe that substantial change is possible, the successful media consensus attacking Reverend Wright demonstrates the tight reign that the US ruling class holds on policy options. Once again, the possibility of progressive change is thwarted without a strong movement outside of the two-party system. In addition, the denunciation of Wright by both candidates is equally a denunciation of the progressive agenda that he advocated and promoted. Wright’s condemnation of imperialism, of militarism, of economic injustice is off the table. His support for fundamental changes in social and economic relations, his advocacy of prison reform, and his militant opposition to racism are not to be addressed. In short, both candidates have backed away from a progressive agenda. While this should not be a surprise to anyone viewing bourgeois democracy through a Marxist prism, it is surprising that this retreat occurs in the primary season while candidates are appealing to the progressive core – labor, activists, and African-American voters. One can only guess how far to the right the Democratic candidate will drift while confronting McCain.
While it is not unexpected that representatives of the ruling class joined to “scandalize the name” – reprising a powerful song by Paul Robeson – of Reverend Wright, it is both tragic and unforgivable that few on the left rushed to Reverend Wright’s defense. This is the same opportunistic fascination with bourgeois politics that has immobilized the leadership - excepting Cindy Sheehan - of the anti-war movement. We, on the left, have fallen far since the era of Martin L. King.
Our views on this election are shaped not by the television commercials, radio spots, superficial debates and carefully orchestrated rallies, but by the material conditions that enable and sustain these campaigns. For Marxists, the funding, the staff, and the class perspective occupied and demonstrated by the candidates shape our position more than the carefully crafted images that are portrayed by a media hungry for campaign dollars. Truth is not served by political disclosure funded by advertising dollars - more revelatory are the sources of those dollars.
Money magazine (January, 2008) locates all three remaining candidates decidedly in the ranks of the well-off – the very rich – by working class standards, with Barack Obama a late and relatively modest upstart. McCain’s fortune is largely attained by marriage and estimated at $40.4 million. He enjoyed a 2006 income of $3.9 million, hardly evidence for any real-life understanding of the experiences of all but the elites in US society.
Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have accumulated a reported net worth of $34.9 million, largely on the basis of the former President’s shrewd exploitation of book and lecture deals following his presidency. A favorite speaker before elite groups and corporations, he earned an incredible $41 million as a pandering celebrity guest. Their reported 2006 income was $12.1 million. Their class position, too, is remote from that of the vast majority of working people.
Barack Obama’s situation in life is substantially different from the other two candidates. His racial experiences, his early career and his wife’s working class roots separate him from the other two candidates to an extent. Their income prior to his rise on the national scene placed them in what bourgeois sociologist would call the upper-middle class. Nonetheless, since his arrival on the national stage, he has boosted his income to an average of well over a million dollars for 2005 and 2006. His exposure and writing have brought him into the lower rungs of the very wealthy. Obama’s politics have moved rightward in step with his rising economic stature.
The advisors around all three candidates are of two types: political strategy advisors and policy advisors. The political strategy advisors are all drawn from the same “hired gun” pool and only differ in terms of how ruthless they will be in constructing campaign strategies. Past experience with the strategists associated with the ultra-right and favored by McCain would suggest that his campaign will know no limits of shame or integrity. Likewise, Clinton’s strategists, largely holdovers from past Clinton campaigns, have shown little concern for any ethical standards, driven only by the ultimate goal of electoral success. The sleazy Mark Penn was only dismissed from the Clinton campaign when his extraordinary greed embarrassed the Clinton policy group.
Obama’s campaign enjoyed early success because of a high-minded, but unspecific and shallow appeal to change and a break with the past. That strategy contrived an aloofness from the sharp attacks that usually accompany a primary campaign and suggested a civility that his advisors thought would be particularly effective for an electorate moving away from the vulgarity of the discredited Bush administration. But a constant barrage of subterranean race-baiting and demagoguery has cracked that strategic approach. The attacks on Reverend Wright, provoked by DLC and right wing pro-Israel forces, have further negated that strategy. We shall see what replaces a now dysfunctional strategy. In the end, all political strategies are driven by polls, results, and finances.
For policy advisors, all three candidates stray little from the reservation. The familiar faces are drawn from a pool of foreign policy war horses and neo-classical economists who pay careful obeisance to the reigning ruling class world-view. Despite pandering to labor, the two Democratic candidates have both suffered gaffes that reveal their true commitment to corporate-friendly free trade agreements. The three candidates constantly demonstrate an unquestioning support for the brutal, colonial policies of the Israeli government; they compete to prove their slavish support. All firmly support military and covert intervention in the interests of US imperialism. Their hostility to Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, PRKorea, and other opponents of US dominance differs merely in tactics. Obama’s hysterically vilified support for negotiation only marks a different approach to the same goals. Clinton’s foreign policy advisors largely supported the invasion of Iraq; Obama’s – led by Brzezinski – did not. This important difference has evaporated since the Bush public relations “surge”. Today, all offer vague approaches reminiscence of Nixon’s “I have a secret plan” for exiting Vietnam.
On economic policy, all the candidates’ advisors are firmly rooted in the neo-liberal philosophy dominating the academic establishment. Without question, the two Democrats craft a message meant to appeal to labor and the working class. Conversely, McCain’s message is meant to resonate with the ownership class, the petit-bourgeoisie and workers deluded into aspiring for this status. But in all cases, the economic message is one of promoting corporate capitalism to serve the interests of their constituencies. In all cases, the interests of corporate capitalism are placed ahead of the immediate interests of the electorate. Thus, corporate dominance is never challenged.
This corporate dominance is fully revealed in the finances of the obscenely costly, interminable election campaign, with over half a billion dollars collected to date by the three remaining candidates. This election cycle has revealed something new: Democrats are raising more money from corporate interests for their campaigns than the traditionally dominant Republicans. This process began before the 2006 elections, accelerated sharply in the Presidential elections, strengthened in the early primaries and continued into 2008. In March, 2008, McCain gained somewhat on his Democratic rivals, but still fell well below the total raised by the two Democrats.
Within the Democratic camp, Clinton dominated jost corporate contributions until 2008, when Obama enjoyed big gains, pushing ahead through March especially in the key industries of finance, lawyers/lobbyists, communications and health.
Wall Street has strongly supported the Democratic candidates over the Republicans. Through the end of 2007, seven of the big 8 financial firms (Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, and Credit Suisse) showed a decided preference towards the Democrats. Only Merrill Lynch gave more to Republicans, though they gave the single jost to Clinton. The Wall Street Journal (2-3/4-08), while noting that Obama receives a notable number of contributions from small donors, pointed out that “…even for Sen. Obama, the finance industry was still the richest source of cash overall…”
Through February, Obama leads the other candidates in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and was in a virtual dead heat with Clinton with respect to the energy sector.
These numbers strongly suggest that candidates, especially Democratic Party candidates, are unlikely to challenge their corporate sponsors in any meaningful way. Liberals will argue that these enormous corporate contributions merely reflect a desire on the part of corporate America to be on the winning side or to buy access to political leadership. While this may well be reflected in contributions made immediately before the election, two factors militate against this assessment: Firstly, corporate money is always an investment meant to impact the interests of the respective corporations and not a gesture or friendly hand to candidates. Secondly, corporate contributions are solicited by the respective candidates, generally at expensive fund raisers that give potential donors a face-to-face encounter with the candidates. Policy positions are thoroughly and carefully vetted in a way denied the millions of small donors who are fed sound bites and canned speeches.
For the working class voter, the prospects for the coming election are hardly encouraging. The outcome of the election will not bring any fundamental policy shift in favor of the vast majority of working people. A Democratic victory will, perhaps, slow the rightward drift that began towards the end of the Carter administration and accelerated under Republican administrations - a drift that will only abate with the emergence of a strong, determined, and independent left movement. Undoubtedly, a Democratic victory will bring some limited, but corporate-friendly reforms in areas of great importance to the working class, reforms that strengthen the Party’s base for future elections. We would expect some legislative changes that soften, but do not stop the internationalization of labor markets (trade agreements). We would expect a gesture in support of labor organizing that will hold organized labor in line. We foresee health care reform that extends coverage and corporate health care profits without challenging the irrationality of the current system. A Democratic victory would also bring greater aid and relief to corporations promising job preservation or expansion.
Symbolically, a Democratic victory would represent a repudiation of the Bush legacy. The election of an African-American or woman would also count as a symbolic victory for the working class, a sign of the elimination of barriers that severely burden the unity of the working class.
In the end, the current election will not substitute for an independent, anti-monopoly movement of the majority of working people.