Friday, February 22, 2008

Why I'm Supporting Barack Obama

The American people are tired of politics that is dominated by the powerful, by the connected. They want their government back.

--Senator Barack Obama

Richard H. Rovere, the New Yorker’s late Washington correspondent, once characterized himself as being radical by intellect, conservative by temperament and liberal by compromise. I would describe myself pretty much the same way. Though I’ve been a registered Democrat since I first began voting, I’ve really had no political home in America. If I lived in Europe, particularly in Italy where I came of age politically, I would vote with the post-communist Left. Contrary to what conservatives have erroneously represented, liberalism in America is not the left end of the political spectrum—it’s really the center, as Arthur Schlesinger once described it in The Vital Center—anymore than classical Burkean conservatism is the right. Though neo-conservatives come closer in belief and behavior to the old right, the far right in America has, since the 19th century, been occupied by a know-nothing native fascism, just as the left was traditionally the domain of communists.

To understand this shift of meaning and attention is to begin to understand the kinds of political derangement the country has been suffering from at least since the Goldwater campaign of 1964, whose aftermath saw the rise of a well-funded conservative movement focused on changing the face of political culture in the U.S., indeed moving the entire country from its natural, non-ideological New Deal liberalism to a hard core conservatism represented by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (remember, Lyndon Johnson was unanimously voted into office in 1964 by an electorate whose majority characterized itself as “liberal.”)

A crucial step in the process of moving the country rightward was the demonization of liberalism by associating it first with communism (even though most liberals were anti-communist) and then as being dangerously “out of step” with mainstream America. Indeed, it could be said that just as McCarthyism had demoralized and destroyed the traditional left in America, so under Ronald Reagan and the rising power of conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, liberalism was both discredited and forced into hiding. The L-word became the bugaboo of American politics. In retrospect, Barry Goldwater’s conservatism appears more like old fashioned libertarianism. Were he alive today, he would doubtless disown the neo-cons.

But I’m not setting out here to write about ideology—that can be for another time. I’m merely attempting to ground my argument—why I’m supporting Barack Obama for president—in the process of my own political evolution.

The first politician I admired was Adlai Stevenson. Although I remember President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom my nominally Republican parents idolized, he was still a shadowy figure from my childhood, a grainy image of a man in a cape, smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder, in Saturday matinee newsreels about the war, the Yalta Conference, and his death in Warm Springs, after which I first saw my father cry. I was in college when Stevenson made his second presidential attempt, in 1956; and I was old enough to understand his speeches, most of which he wrote himself in a resonant, elegantly literate prose (much like Obama’s today) and to canvass for his campaign as a member of Students for Stevenson. My classmates were Ike likers (“I Like Ike” was the first campaign button I remember); and I had separated myself from my parents, who, under the pall of McCarthyism, had re-embraced the Republican party. Once I heard Stevenson deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, I knew this was a man I could believe in, and nothing he did after his considerable loss to Eisenhower (a greater loss to the nation, I might add) disabused me of my admiration for him.

You might expect that after cutting my political teeth on Stevenson I would naturally have given the very first presidential vote of my life to John F. Kennedy, but I didn’t. I was living in Europe, where the Cold War arms build up was not a rhetorical crusade but a fact of life, and it was clear to me that there was very little difference between the militant anti-communism of Kennedy and his Republican opponent Vice-President Richard Nixon. I joined a group of expatriates, who signed letters, petitions and newspaper ads urging Americans living abroad not to vote for either candidate, as a protest against their joint refusal to curtail the nuclear weapons race. Indeed, after his election Kennedy proved to be every bit the Cold Warrior he promised to be.

Returning home frightened by Goldwater’s apparent extremism, I felt compelled to support Lyndon Johnson. I registered to vote as a Democrat and I have not changed that designation since, though I have voted for Republicans, notably Edward Brooke, who served Massachusetts ably as a senator, and Francis Sargent, who was one of the state’s finest governors, an early environmentalist and a liberal Republican of the old school.

I turned against Johnson as soon as he escalated the war in Vietnam, later canvassing for Senator Eugene McCarthy whose upstart presidential campaign drove Johnson from office. When Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 nomination at a convention reminiscent of Nazi Germany, I was forced to make another of the odious choices I have had to make as a Democrat, given the fact that Humphrey’s opponent was none other than Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a plan to end the war, which he kept running for another six years, resulting in the deaths of 55,000 Americans and over a million Vietnamese. After my disappointment at Nixon's 1972 victory over George McGovern, another Stevensonian figure, I voted eagerly for Jimmy Carter in 1976, though as president he, too, disappointed me (he’s since become a hero for his courageous stand against Bush’s pre-emptive wars). I can say nothing more about the Reagan debacle (like Thatcher’s in England) than I wrote in column after column in the Gloucester Daily Times during his tenure as one of the worst presidents in history before Bush. I don’t subscribe to the conservative’s myth of Reagan as having ended the Cold War—not the Reagan who sponsored death squads in El Salvador, while illegally supporting a war against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua with funds secretly obtained by selling weapons to our putative enemy Iran. This was also the president who turned Americans against their own government, another of those conservative-managed derangements I’ve spoken of, under which Americans have been convinced to vote against their own best interests.

After George Bush’s prelude to his son’s invasion of Iraq, I welcomed a young, fresh-faced Bill Clinton to the White House, only to discover that he was another sweet talker, though a highly intelligent one, at least as regards policy matters. I might even have pardoned his philandering had he not done the unthinkable, when he effectively dismantled the Welfare system, "ending Welfare as we know it," and driving thousands of women and children deeper into poverty, not to “reform” a system badly in need of it, but to take the issue away from the Republicans as he prepared to run for a second term. The move was called “triangulation” (adopting for oneself the ideas of one’s opponent, both to take credit for them and to insulate oneself from criticism by the opponent on those issues) and the Clintons have been running on this fuel ever since. (Note: Under George W. Bush 37 million people, or 12.7% of the population, live in poverty, according to the latest Census Bureau figures--the highest poverty rate on record for the U.S.)

I’ve never believed that the Democrats were less corrupt or more honorable than the Republicans. After all, I live in Massachusetts, whose state politics and most of whose offices are controlled by an in-group of Democratic old boys (and girls), as intransigent politically as they are intellectually bankrupt. This is the gang that gave us a string of Republican governors, who have left cities living off lottery funds, turning public schools into dilapidated detention centers, where the only teaching that occurs is to prepare students for useless state competency exams. This is also the crowd we can thank for three LNG terminals that further undermine our endangered fishing industry, while leaving coastal communities more vulnerable to attacks from those who would target the terminals. And we can’t forget the gambling casinos that will soon be built, presumably to increase the state’s tax base, depleted for some twenty-six years as a result of Proposition 2 ½, one of the early anti-government initiatives conservatives foisted on an unsuspecting public. Would the state’s “liberal” Democratic leadership ever push to repeal this dinosaur that’s driven the Commonwealth into penury? Don’t even think about it!

If I’m cynical about the party I’ve belonged to and most of whose candidates I’ve voted for since 1964, the above is self-explanatory. You could ague that I’ve had alternatives in Ralph Nader’s spoiler campaigns or the candidates of the nascent Green Party. However, when you live in a two-party system it’s foolhardy to vote for or support third parties, even if their agendas are appealing. You may feel personally good about it, but you will usually be undercutting the lesser of the two evils we’ve been presented with for most of our recent political history. Of course, one can opt out of the system entirely, but in doing that one cedes any small effectiveness one might otherwise have enjoyed, and you only end up throwing your vote away. Politics in America is, after all, the art of the possible.

But this time I refuse to take the lesser road. As a “Democrat” I now have two choices for my party’s nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and I’m throwing my support to the candidate I believe to be the better choice, Barack Obama. Clinton and her husband (they are indistinguishable politically and they tell us disingenuously that if we vote for Hillary we’ll be getting “two for one”) represent the old politics of either party. Behind them lies the power of the special interests and their lobbies (especially the Israel Lobby, which has had such an inhibiting effect on American foreign policy), the money of the giant corporations and Wall Street, the health insurance cartels, the party hacks and back room old boys, who wouldn’t know a progressive idea if they fell over it; yes, and the Democratic Leadership Council, which has done more than its conservative opponents to undermine what little progressivism remains in the party. Beyond that, the presidency is not Hillary’s entitlement, as she seems to be suggesting. It may be an office she has prepared for and fought for during a good deal of her political life. She may even be the hard working senator she wants us to believe she is. But those not uncommon desires and putative accomplishments do not automatically guarantee her the highest elective office in the land.

If you listen to Hillary, who gave Bush permission (as Barack did not) to fire bomb thousands of women and children in Iraq and won’t repudiate her vote, you’ll hear the same old litany: “universal health care” but not “single payer,” or a much needed national health system, (Hilary and Obama both remain in the thrall of the health insurance industry); the conflation of the working class (which is now poorer than ever) with the middle class, which used to be the working class and still earns what the old working class earns, even as their industrial jobs dwindle or are shipped out of the country; no major critique of Bush’s phony “war on terror,” which has depleted our treasury and turned the rest of the world against us, just the same old “it’s a dangerous world and we need strong, experienced leadership” (it’s a dangerous world because every action Bush takes creates a more threatening reaction). Underlying so much of this is Hillary’s attempt to project a posture of power, of assurance (“I may be a woman but I am as strong and willful as a man.”)

However, the most significant factor for me in my decision not to support Hillary, is her uncritical embrace of neo-liberalism; and that, I believe, is the most insidious force threatening our political, economic and social wellbeing, far more than the canard of “terrorism” or Islamo-fascism. Neo-liberalism, an outgrowth of right-wing libertarian economic and philosophical principles, posits a market-dominated system, which seeks to privatize the entire public sphere into a globalized uber-market, which, according to social philosopher Pierre Bordieu, benefits least those who are most adversely affected by it, including the world’s poor and indigenous peoples whose local economies, communities, languages and folkways are endangered by globalization.

George W. Bush is also a neo-liberal, as is Tony Blair, for neo-liberalism makes no ideological distinctions. Its proponents believe in deregulation of markets, tax relief for the richest corporations and individuals (neither of whom need it), the transformative power of wealth, liberalization of trade, and market-determined interest rates—in other words, in non-governmental interference in an unfettered market. The consequences of neo-liberal economic policies are now being experienced by Americans as our economy falls into recession and millions of working people are losing both their jobs and their homes.

At bottom, Hillary and Obama are scarcely liberals of the Ted Kennedy or Gary Hart schools. They are both moderates and their records on that account do not differ much, though Obama gets higher marks than Hillary on his positions from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action organization.

When you listen to Hillary her speeches are all couched in terms of “I, I, me, me.” In contrast, Obama talks of “we, our, ours and us.” The differences are striking, if you care about the nuances of language and how arguments are framed. Hillary talks about giving us “solutions,” while Obama outlines ways of bringing people together to create our own solutions and to take back our country from the very special interests who support Hillary and Bill Clinton (and Bush). Deeper than that, Obama talks about hope, about caring again for our country and each other. Hillary, instead, raises the old Bush specter of fear. “It’s a dangerous world,” she reminds us, just as Dick Cheney did, while preparing to invade a country that was no threat to us. What emerges is the image of Hillary, who wants to be our first woman president, as Commander in Chief—as a warrior, a polarizing figure right out of the Cold War: “Us against Them.”

In comparison, Obama steps forth as a unifier, a healer. He wants to bring Republicans and Democrats, Independents and the disenfranchised together. I believe Americans are ready for that dialogue; indeed, we yearn for it. After eight years of the world hating us because of George W. Bush’s exceptionalism; eight years of secret government under an imperial presidency; eight years of payoffs to the rich, of thousands of deaths in unnecessary wars, and retaliation, threats and abuse against those of us who have tried to voice our opposition, I think the nation is poised for a new beginning. For that reason I’m placing my hope in Barack Obama.

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