Saturday, 2 August 2008

Respect goes west- Mike's Letter from America #8

Obama Turns Right

Sorry to go on about Barack Obama again, but he is still the biggest story in U.S. politics, and his recent European tour means that you on the other side of the pond have just had your share of Obamania. I’ve written before that it is hard to entirely dislike someone who Fox News accuses of being a being a secret Muslim terrorist communist. His ability to mobilize the people who are traditionally disengaged from mainstream politics is exciting and significant. Yet as the presidential campaign begins to swing into action, Obama is sounding increasingly like the timid, conservative, party-machine candidates who turned those people off the Democrats in the first place.

It’s true that Obama was never that left-wing in the first place; he is worryingly close to Wall Street, and supports the war in Afghanistan. But in the last few weeks, he has swung further to the right. Take his heavily-reported speech in Berlin: as one of the commentators on the news channel MSNBC put it, “John McCain could have given that speech”. It was full of nostalgic references to the Cold War and appeals to Europe to help get the U.S. out of the hole it has dug for itself in Afghanistan. No doubt Fox News will take Obama’s admission that the USA isn't perfect as a sign of his treasonous Islamo-Bolshevik tendencies. Otherwise, however, the speech was a hawkish appeal for a transatlantic alliance in the ‘War on Terror’.

The Berlin speech was only the latest in a series of right-wing moves by Obama. In 1968, when French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit was accused of being ‘A German Jew who thinks he’s Karl Marx’, the students responded with the slogan ‘we are ALL German Jews’. When ‘accused’ of being a Muslim, Obama’s response was not to say ‘supposing I am Muslim, what of it? In America we enjoy freedom of religion’. Instead, he strenuously denied that he was a Muslim and went to great lengths to stress his Christianity.

This could be written off as an unfortunate but necessary move to reassure an Islamophobic American electorate. (If so, it isn’t working, as the conservative media still pepper their comments with references to ‘Barack HUSSEIN Obama’, and ‘Barack Osama’). Sadly, it wasn’t an isolated incident. In the last few weeks, Obama has supported extending the death penalty to crimes other than murder; called for the extension of George Bush’s farming out of public services to ‘faith-based’ groups; offered unconditional support for Israel, and – in defiance of international law and the UN – supported the continued occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem; and taken on a team of pro-corporate economic advisers.

Obama’s apologists argue that this is the inevitable logic of electoral politics – a candidate has to appeal to the centre ground to get elected, so must drop the more ‘extreme’ policies that appeal to the party base. This of course was the argument used to defend Blair in 1997 – and we all know the result of that. But it simply isn’t true that candidates have to move to the centre. The Republican John McCain certainly hasn’t – in fact, since clinching the nomination he has moved to the right, ditching his reputation as a centrist to embrace the failed politics of George W. Bush. None of this makes sense in terms of electoral arithmetic – Bush’s policies are hugely unpopular, and the polls show that the vast majority of Americans want withdrawal from Iraq, and blame the Republicans for the disastrous state of the economy, all of which would play into the hands of Obama if he were to stick to the simple message of attacking the Iraq War and the free-market economy.

So why do both candidates embrace unpopular policies? As Obama’s courting of Wall Street suggests, it’s because real power rests not with the voters, but with corporate America. The Republicans are clear what base they represent; they are the party of big business, and reliably pursue pro-business policies. If in doubt, they swing to the right, even if it doesn’t make sense in electoral terms. The Democrats, however, do not have a similarly strong base among the poor or the working class, as they too are a pro-business party. As American socialist Mike Davis wrote at the time of Kerry’s defeat in 2004, “the great achievement of the Clinton era was to realign the Democrats as the party of the 'new economy', of the bicoastal knowledge industries and high-tech exporters. Instead of an economic rescue package for the heartland as demanded by the industrial unions, Clinton rammed through the job-exporting North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).”

So the Dems cannot easily counter the Republicans with a strong anti-corporate message. Now, I’m not suggesting that, in the unlikely event that they reinvented themselves as a socialist party, the Democrats would sweep to victory. However, it’s not so hard in the present climate to at least imagine them routing the Republicans on a populist platform of opposition to the war and to corporate greed. But they won’t, for fear of alienating their rich backers. So by conceding the ground on arguments of social class and economics, they allow the Republicans to make inroads into the white working-class vote by appealing to fear of foreigners, gays, and the ‘liberal elite’.

The need for a third party based on anti-corporate politics is as clear as ever. This election is not the ideal time for such a challenge, as the desire to end 8 years of Republican rule, added to Obama’s bogus-radical credentials, looks set to turn the strong mood for change into a vote for the Democrats. On top of this, the progressive vote will be split between Ralph Nader (running as an independent) and the Green candidate Cynthia McKinney, an African-American ex-Democratic congresswoman with a proud anti-war record. But a left alternative is necessary, and if activists can tap into the idealism of Obama’s supporters, the growing trade unions in the ‘new economy’, and the mass movements against the war and in support of immigrants, building such an alternative might not be a pipe-dream.