Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Respect goes West: Mikes letter from America #3

Primary Season: (Some of) the People Decide –

Greetings from the world’s oldest and greatest democracy, where, on 15 January 2008, the voters of the State of Michigan had the opportunity to vote for… well, nobody. Two of the three leading Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and John Edwards, were not on the ballot paper. The third, Hillary Clinton, was, but promised not to campaign in the state. All of which is somewhat irrelevant, as the Democratic [sic] Party has banned Michigan from sending a delegation to this summer’s Convention, the body that chooses the party’s candidate for the presidency.

Why this Musharraf-style election? The reason is that Michigan had the temerity to challenge Iowa and New Hampshire’ s place in the spotlight at the beginning of primary season. The primaries (where people vote by ballot) and caucuses (where they attend local public meetings to vote) allow voters to have a say in choosing the two main parties’ presidential candidates. On the face of it, this is very democratic, in contrast to the UK model of choosing party leaders by block-votes and back-room deals. However, the primary and caucus procedure is so complicated it seems almost designed to confuse voters. A disproportionate influence is held by Iowa and New Hampshire – who between them have less than 2% of the country’s population - as they are traditionally the first states to hold their elections, in early January. The Democratic Party even has a rule that no other state can hold a primary before 1 February, hence the ban on Michigan’s delegates. As the first tests of public opinion, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have a psychological significance way beyond the number of voters involved. A good or bad performance can make or break a candidate’s hopes.

Why is this crazy system allowed to continue? The answer seems to be that it is in the interests of everybody – except the voters. The media love to devote round-the-clock coverage to debating the minutiae of two small elections. The candidates like to generate momentum by making an early splash , without having to devote money and resources to campaigning in a number of states at once. The states in question love the publicity – and money – generated by the candidates and TV crews. A cynic (i.e., me) might add that by giving such influence to two almost entirely white states, troublesome minorities are kept from having too big a say. (New Hampshire – 97% white; Iowa – 91% white).

So, who are the candidates we can’t vote for? The Republican primary is going ahead as usual, so some Democrats have talked about switching parties to mess of the GOP side by voting for an unelectable right-wing nut-job. The problem is there are too many right-wing nut-jobs to choose from. The main candidate of the right, Mitt Romney, is straight-down-the-line conservative; pro-free market, pro-war, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-gay. Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, Baptist minister, supporter of creationism, bass-guitar playing rocker, and surprise winner in Iowa, is at least entertaining. But the fact that someone so extreme can be considered a viable candidate is worrying. That, and the fact that he looks more like Richard Nixon every day. The most reasonable of the Republican candidates is John McCain, who is comparatively liberal, and has been consistent and outspoken in his condemnation of torture by the US military. However, he’s a critic of the Iraq War from the right, attacking Bush for not being tough enough, and is an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘surge’. If this ‘liberal’ Republican becomes president, expect the ‘War on Terror’ to get even scarier.
And what about the Democrats? The only half-decent candidate is Dennis Kucinich, who had the decency to stay on the ballot in Michigan. He is the nearest you’ll find to a socialist among the Democratic runners. He is the only one who is unequivocally against the Iraq War. He is also – despite all the talk from the others of health-care reform – the only candidate to support a fully publically funded NHS-style system. Unfortunately, Kucinich can’t realistically win, thanks in part to a blackout by a media which has decided that he’s not a ‘serious’ candidate.

Which leaves us with the Holy Trinity of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Of these, Hillary Clinton is by far the least appealing. She stands in the right-wing Democrat tradition of her husband. The (Bill) Clinton years are remembered with much fondness as a time of peace and prosperity, while the wars in Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and Sudan are conveniently forgotten by those who see the Dems as an anti-war party. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War, is a completely uncritical supporter of Israel, and has adopted a hawkish stance on Iran. It’s hard to see how her foreign policy would differ substantially from Bush’s. Her rhetoric reminds me of Blair without the charisma, with the constant denigration of principles in favour of the ‘realistic’ pursuit of office, as when she said that the Civil Rights movement only succeeded because there was a Democratic president to sign the Civil Rights Bill. I even heard her saying she ‘passionately believes’ in something-or-other, borrowing one of Blair’s favourite lines. It’s hard to see where Clinton’s appeal lies, but she has gained support through appearing as the ‘sensible’ agent of change. She has also been subjected to the most revolting sexism by much of the media, which seemed to rally women voters behind her in New Hampshire.

Of the three front-runners, John Edwards certainly sounds the most left wing. With his ‘two Americas’ rhetoric, he has placed opposition to social inequality and corporate greed at the centre of his campaign, and has gained the support of many labor unions. However, like Clinton and Obama, his health-care proposals would still leave private companies in control of medical insurance. He has recently been outspoken in his criticism of the ‘War on Terror’, a term which he dismissed as ‘a bumper sticker’. However, while Clinton voted for the Iraq War, Edwards went one further, and co-sponsored a bill to authorise it.

Which brings us to the golden boy, Barack Obama. As an African-American, and as a young politician not tarnished by too long an association with Capitol Hill, Obama appeals strongly to those wanting change. (Change, by the way, is the key word used by all candidates, even the Republicans, so sick are the electorate of Bush). He scores heavily in the polls with young voters, and with ‘independents’, voters who do not identify strongly with either of the two main parties. He is an inspiring speaker, who has drawn comparison with JFK or Martin Luther King. But behind the rhetoric, it’s hard to know what he stands for. He and Clinton have emerged as the two front-runners, and are swapping increasingly bitter insults, but they do no differ greatly on the issues. Both support universal (but not free, publically-owned) healthcare. Both call for troops out of Iraq, but both support the ‘War on Terror’ to some degree, and have talked of extending it to Iran or Pakistan. Both supported Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006. When I tried out one of the popular ‘candidate match’ websites which claim to match you views on the issues to your favoured candidate, I was surprised to find that Clinton scored more highly than Obama! http://www.pricegrabber.com/survey/start/?

It’s easy for long-standing activists to be cynical, but large numbers of voters, especially younger ones, have been enthusiastic about the Democratic candidates’ campaigns, and have come out to vote in record numbers. About quarter of a million Democratic voters turned out for the Iowa caucuses. This is impressive bearing in mind that: Iowa is a majority Republican state; its total population is only about 2 million; caucuses require the voter to sit through a series of meetings and votes (not just turn up and put a ballot in a box); it’s bloody cold in Iowa in January. The tragedy is that once again this political enthusiasm and desire for change is being syphoned off into campaigning for ‘business-as-usual’ Democratic candidates. If the general election in November comes down to a Clinton vs McCain contest, a ‘liberal’ Republican versus a conservative Democrat, voters will once again be offered no real choice. All the candidates talk of change, but if the enthusiasm shown for Obama and Edwards was directed behind a progressive, anti-war, third-party candidate, then we might see some real change on the agenda.

PS – Today, 15 January, is the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. It is also the day that 1.5 million African-Americans in Michigan were disenfranchised by the Democratic Party’s national leadership. Another proud achievement for the USA’s ‘progressive’ party.