Monday, 19 May 2008

Respect goes West- Mikes letter from America #6

Letter from America #6 – Obama the Marxist?

They think it’s all over ... possibly… Last week’s Indiana and North Carolina primaries saw Barack Obama finally begin to emerge as the likely Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton has vowed to fight on, but her ‘victory’ speech in Indianapolis last week was full of conciliatory comments about the need to unite against the Republicans, suggesting she’s a candidate who knows her days are numbered.

Why has it taken so long to reach this point? In part, it’s down to the closeness of the race – most campaigns for the presidential nomination are over by now, with one candidate emerging as front runner, while those trailing drop out, nursing their wounds and their bank balances. But the arcane nature of the Democrats’ system for choosing a presidential candidate is the main reason that the issue is still undecided, and could remain so until the convention in August. The primaries and caucuses that have been contested so bitterly over the last four months elect only about 80% of the delegates to the party convention. The remaining 20% are so-called ‘super-delegates’, party officials or professional politicians who do not need to go through the tiresome business of being elected. To put it in the language of the British Labour Party – these are the block votes that protect the party leadership from too much internal democracy. As neither candidate can realistically gain a majority of elected delegates, this month’s primaries are as much about impressing the super-delegates as they are about winning votes. By winning big in North Carolina, and losing by only the narrowest of margins in Indiana, Obama sent a message to the party hierarchy that he is able to beat John McCain in November.

It is hard not to warm to Barack Obama, as he has been subjected to a witch-hunt in the media, which, disgracefully, Clinton was happy to pander to. Obama was slammed for old comments made by his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was filmed giving a sermon attacking the USA’s record of oppressing African Americans, ending with a cry of ‘God Bless America? No, God Damn America!’ Then Obama was taped making comments at a private meeting in which he described small-town working-class Americans as ‘bitter’, who ‘cling to their guns and religion’.

Hillary Clinton leapt on these comments, and tried to turn herself into the champion of poor white America. Obama’s comments on ‘bitter’ blue-collar workers were, when read in context, quite perceptive – he was actually sympathizing with white working-class people, and urging liberals not to write them off, but to understand why they turn to ‘guns and religion’ in reaction to an economic system that sees them as dispensable.  Clinton, however, attacked him as an ‘elitist’, leading to the nauseating spectacle of the Ivy-League-educated millionaire wife of a former president presenting herself as a woman of the people.

Does this mean the left should support Obama? Compared to Clinton, who recently threatened to ‘obliterate’ Iran if it attacked Israel, or to McCain, who would like to stay in Iraq for 100 years if necessary, the junior senator for Illinois certainly seems preferable. After all, anybody whom Fox News dubs a ‘Marxist’ can’t be all bad. Obama not only opposed the Iraq War, but spoke at a public rally against it in 2003, when Clinton and most of the Democrats in Congress were voting to authorize it. However, the Iraq War aside, there is very little that separates Obama and Clinton. Obama is less gung-ho on the ‘War on Terror’, but still supports it in principle – one of his criticisms of the Iraq War is that it distracts from the war in Afghanistan, which he supports. He is also in favour of keeping US bases in Iraq after ‘withdrawal’, and of using the US military there to fight ‘Al-Qaida’ – which makes for an odd kind of withdrawal. His economic and social policies are little different from Clinton’s. Obama talks a good game on the looming recession, but has said nothing to suggest he will seek a solution from outside the current free-market orthodoxies.

The film-maker Michael Moore put forward one of the more sophisticated arguments for why the left should back Obama. His argument is to vote not for Obama the man, but for ‘Obama the movement’. Yes, Moore argues, Obama is another mainstream politician, but he has enthused and energized hundreds of thousands of young people and first-time voters, and has succeeded in mobilizing the anti-war vote. Therefore there will be a movement in place to hold Obama to account if he is elected president.

There’s nothing wrong with Moore’s logic, but I think he comes to the wrong conclusion. He is spot-on when he argues that the left should approach electoral politics in terms of how it connects to the wider movement. That is why Respect was launched in the UK – not because we believe we will win a majority in parliament any time soon, but because the party can articulate the voice of the anti-war movement. That, too, is why much of the US left supported the Green Party’s Ralph Nader in 2000 – not because he could win, but because his campaign was linked to the emerging anti-capitalist movement. But Moore’s error is in seeing Obama as part of such a movement; Yes, Obama deserves credit for opposing the Iraq War when it was unpopular to do so, but his speech at that rally in Chicago in 2003 was the last time (to my knowledge) that he spoke at any public event of the anti-war movement. In fact, enrolling the anti-war movement into campaigning for Obama (or for the Democrats in general) would only weaken it. The tail-ending of the pro-war Democrats has been the biggest weakness the US anti-war movement. According to the US Green Party, many anti-war organizations have even decided to scale back their campaigns in the run-up to the elections, for fear of embarrassing the Democratic Party.  In these circumstances, the last thing the movement needs is closer links to a Democratic politician.

Yet, despite all I’ve written, I would argue against taking an ultra-left or sectarian attitude to Obama’s supporters. The fact that somebody who vocally and publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq looks set to beat a member of the Democratic establishment who wants to nuke Iran is significant of a change of mood among the American people. So is the fact that, for the first time, an African-American has a real chance of being elected president. After all, the older black voters who supported Obama in North Carolina will remember a time when it was impossible for an African-American to even vote in the South. We should not have any illusions in Obama as an agent of change, but should welcome the changes that make his election possible.