February 7, 2008

Some Thoughts On The Elections, Part 1: The Obama Campaign

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By way of introduction, let me lay out why I am writing this and why I hope others will chip in some thoughts in the comments section. Fire on the Mountain, splendid though it is, may not be the best place to house an extended non-sectarian discussion of issues related to the 2008 election, but I haven’t found any other venue that rings my chimes, so we’ll give it a shot.

To set the context, briefly, here's where I'm coming from:

I do not think work in the electoral arena in the US, especially above the local level, is a particularly worthwhile place for revolutionaries and socialists to be putting their energies in this time period.

Contrariwise, to act as if the 2008 elections aren’t taking place, and aren’t the principal lens through which the vast majority of the people of this country will be viewing all political issues is to engage in a willful denial of reality.

The weakness and fragmentation of the left in the US gives us a certain luxury—it is highly unlikely that anything we might do could significantly affect the outcome. And so we can analyze, do propaganda, debate approaches and test-run projects without risking much.

Okay, time to wade in and see if we can jumpstart some dialog. Herewith, 3 points on the campaign of Barack Obama, which has clearly created a bunch of dynamics we need to be thinking about very carefully.

1. Early on, the polls showed an interesting divide in the Black community, with many older African Americans, women in particular, backing Clinton. Some said they wouldn’t support Obama because a successful run would get him killed, like the Kennedys and King. As the winnowing process whittled the Democratic field down toward the media-friendly duel—white woman vs. Black man--the tide in the Black community to Obama was undeniable. The Clinton campaign’s effort to play the race card, especially Bill’s sniping at Obama and Hillary’s tin-eared claim that LBJ was the real hero of the Civil Rights Movement, intensified support for Obama throughout the Black nation.

What was reinforced here was the big lesson of Katrina—this society is still deeply racist and Black folk still have to stick together for survival. This is particularly noteworthy at a time when there has been a lot of attention paid to the Pew Research survey of last fall which argued that there is a deep and growing divide in "values" in African America between poor and "middle class" Blacks. While support for Obama was initially strongest in higher income, better educated layers of the community, the urban poor and low wage workers justifiably skeptical of his campaign’s obvious attempt to portray him as "above race" turned out in unexpectedly large numbers on Super Duper Tuesday. These days you hear less of the "he’s not Black, he’s a Halfrican" type disses in the community and on talk radio.

The fact that the Black nation has swung behind Barack Obama in a big way doesn’t, of course, oblige any of us to do so as well, but it does means that those of us who aren’t Black, in particular, should be careful and respectful of this development. "I support Cynthia McKinney, the real Black candidate" probably won’t get you all that far in talking to friends and coworkers who are into Obama. I highly recommend that folks start reading The Black Commentator weekly, if you don’t already. The current issue has three interesting articles, one very sharply critical, on his campaign.

2. A key factor in the coming months will be the "Latino vote" and specifically how the various campaigns approach it. The Republican primary has featured a truly offensive mudwrestlng free-for-all over who can take the most ignorant and punitive stance toward immigrants, meaning that the growing claim of the Democratic Party on Latina/os will not be threatened. There is a very real danger here that sections of the Democratic Party machine supporting Clinton will try to play on and exacerbate existing contradiction between the Black community and Chicana/os and other Latina/o populations.

One important counterdevelopment to this took place in LA during the run-up to Super Duper Tuesday. The Clinton campaign had paid special attention to getting early endorsements from Mayor Villaraigosa and mobilizing the Democratic Party infrastructure there, part of a well-planned and well-financed California push which wound up giving her a two to one edge among Latina/o primary voters. A few days before the primary, though, the most listened-to radio deejay in the US, El Piolin (who was hugely influential in mobilizing over a million immigrants in LA during the immigrant levantamiento of two years ago), came out for Obama and featured Ted Kennedy on the show promoting his candidacy.

3. The Obama campaign has triggered a genuine wave of support and activity among young people of all nationalities which will bear close watching. He and his advisers are packaging him as an inspirational mass leader and his campaign as a movement. The battle cry is "Hope" and the rhetoric is inclusive, powerful echoes of the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s.

One big problem here is that Obama implicitly pits his message against populism, and pro-equality populism was the heart of the Jackson campaigns. But in this campaign the banner of populism and defiance of giant corporations and their control of US politics was held high by John Edwards, and has been even been picked up and waved around by Clinton, however unconvincingly. And the talk of inclusion seems aimed mainly at suggesting that Obama will be able to transcend the political and cultural divisions in the country, and more concretely the stalemate in Congress. This part of his pitch drives many left liberals nuts—they see the central feature of the last two years as a near-incomprehensible collapse by a Democratic Congressional majority elected to end the war and rein in Bush. This sounds to them like more of the same and worse still, like a declaration that, if elected, Obama would be far too focused on "uniting" and creating "change" to pursue investigation and prosecution of the Bush/Cheney crew for their multiple and horrific crimes.

I’ll close here by posting a video which for me captures some of why Obama’s campaign, no matter how history-making, bothers me so much. Put together by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, and directed by Jesse Dylan, Bob's son, it’s a campaign ad in music video drag. And it’s brilliant. Watch it now (if it hasn’t already turned up in your in-box a dozen times over the last week or so).

Powerful, no? But look at what is really going on.
There is no real content to the speech excerpt at the video's center, just platitudes. Audio and video references to the struggles of the '60s and '70s aim to evoke nostalgia among Boomers (and fauxstalgia among the video's real target, younger people who've learned about the period mainly in school or on public television). The casually dressed and almost self-effacing women and men who recite or sing Obama’s words as he orates are in fact celebrities and entertainment biz people acting out a charade of inclusivity. And since it’s evidently thought possible that we may be too damn dumb to get the message, we get HOPE and CHANGE flashed at us in big caps. Oh, yeah, and YES, WE CAN.

Yep, the video takes the great slogan of the Chicana/o National Movement, ¡Si, Se Puede!--usually rendered in English as "Yes, We Can!"--and transforms it from a defiant battle cry into a collective feel-good, patriotic mantra.

Yes, We Can. Hope. Change.

Uh-hunh. As a counterpoint, I post—-repost actually—-a much lower budget video commentary on the primaries, which channels David Bowie to make its point, short and sweet.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts on the election are sort-of "all over the map" and sometimes contradictory.

First of all, I think ignoring or boycotting the election is absolutely nuts, purely silly. I think one of the biggest mistakes of my generation was not supporting Humphrey in 68. Even though I was not yet able to vote at the time, I had been very active, really that's the last (and only) time I seriously worked for a national candidate (McCarthy.) But I, like many of us, was way too "pure" (not to mention royally pissed off) to support the "lesser of 2." If we had not had Nixon, just maybe we wouldn't have had Reagan, or Bush. And we'd all live in a very different world now.

But then there's the other part of the map. If we'd had all those dems instead, if we get Obama now (which I hope we do) it would (will) be a little bit better.

But much? Nah. I echo many of the comments made here about that whole "hope" thing, etc. It's all platitudes, with no content at all. I'm seeing that in my family and friends now, some are very excited about Obama, and it's almost embarassing to hear what people say. Completely empty of content. ("What's wrong with hope?" etc.) I hear that from 20-somethings, but also from contemporaries in their 50's.

I think the most likely scenario for later this year is an Obama win, and that will be good. But very slightly. Serious change? Ending the war in a timely manner? Real national health care? Any rollback or even slowdown in the global "free trade" attacks on living standards? Not lucking fikely.

OK, those who know me know that cynicism is my main attitude-- called for or not. But I really think it's called for here.

Like the Who said-- "Won't get fooled again." Yes we will...

Anonymous said...

Check out this new obama video. its a pretty amazing piece of propaganda. It got me a little teary. oy vey.


Skwisgaar Skwigelf said...

Wow, that's impressive. No wonder the guy's winning, with people producing stuff like this.
Here's a simplified URL for the link.
(Tip: If you have a long Youtube URL, you can always delete the stuff from the first ampersand onward. It's extraneous.)

Leaving aside the question of whether Obama's team mean any of it and what will happen when people's hopes are betrayed, it is very interesting to me in terms of how clearly it shows that the emotional buttons that are being pressed are progressive ones.

It bodes well, I think, that so many people are being mobilized around progressive sentiments across lines of nationality and among youth in particular, even if there's little in the way of substance behind it all. However it all plays out, it is being established within mainstream bourgeois discourse that people are in motion around such sentiments. This fact alone will tend to favorably influence the balance of forces within mainstream politics, even if the real political movements are doing a generally crappy job of organizing people at the moment.

A key task for us will be to be there after the elections to wage the struggle for summation within popular discourse, so we can win over the people who stepped forward to more substantive political engagement rather than lose them to cynicism.