frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

The 2008 Presidential Election: Politics as Usual

Eric Chester of the Socialist Party USA looks behind the hype at the upcoming Presidential elections in the United States.

2008 would seem to be a turning point in U.S. politics, with the Democratic Party poised to sweep the November elections, and with the Democratic presidential nomination won by a person of colour, Barack Obama, who won a shock victory over a woman, Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, beneath the hype and glitz this is very much politics as usual. In reality, none of the mainstream candidates challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying government policies, and, indeed, all of them remain beholden to the same corporate interests that rule the United States, and much of the rest of the world.

Globalization and Empire

The globalized integration of the capitalist market economy has had the same impact on the United States as it has throughout Western Europe. Factories have been relocated to countries with lower wages and fewer environmental controls. The flow of jobs from the industrial sector has recently been extended to much of the service sector, as software engineers and accountants in English speaking developing countries are hired by transnational corporations at a small fraction of the cost of those who held these jobs in the United States.

This massive outsourcing of jobs, and investment, has had a devastating impact on urban areas, while significantly widening the gap between the rich and the poor. It has also led to the virtual disintegration of trade unions in the private sector. By now, only 7% of the private sector workforce in the United States is unionized, and strikes have become a rarity. (Public sector workers are more likely to be union members, but strikes in the public sector are illegal.)

Thus, the globalization of capital has drastically and irrevocably shifted the balance of class forces toward the capitalist class. The dominant ideology within the U.S. working class has always been pragmatic liberal reformism, and yet globalization has undermined the basis of reformism, leaving liberals adrift. In this context,the Democratic Party has moved even further into the corporate center. Democratic candidates in the past promised a great deal and delivered little. Now, the Democratic mainstream promises little beyond being slightly better than Republican conservatives.

In many ways, the trajectory of the Democratic Party resembles that of the British Labour Party under both Blair and Brown. Still, there is a critical difference. The United States stands as the sole remaining global superpower. In spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the total absence of a credible military threat, U.S. military forces continue to mushroom. The absurdity of this situation can be seen in Afghanistan where B-2 bombers, costing more than a billion dollars each, are deployed on bombing runs against guerrilla units armed with machine guns. With the U.S. military budget now exceeding 700 billion dollars a year, ten times that of any other country, the resulting squeeze in the federal budget has brought a shredding of the already meager social safety net. Needless to say, none of the mainstream candidates are willing to challenge this grotesque misuse of scarce resources.

U.S. imperialism constitutes the primary threat to world peace. The occupation of Iraq has continued for five years, with no sign of an imminent end. As a result, the Iraqi war has become intensely unpopular, with the official death toll for U.S. troops topping 4000. In spite of this, when Democratic presidential candidates appearing at a forum last fall were asked whether they would pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq within four years, the length of a presidential term in office, neither Obama or Clinton would do so. Since then, Obama has said that he will oppose any Òprecipitous,Ó that is rapid, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Instead, both Democratic candidates propose to implement a more sophisticated strategy than that followed by the current administration. Iraqi soldiers would replace U.S. soldiers in the routine policing of hostile neighborhoods. Although some troops would be withdrawn, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers would remain, withdrawing to isolated bases where they would serve as a reserve force and as specialized hit squads of counter-insurgency forces. This would significantly reduce U.S. casualties, thereby making an indefinite occupation of Iraq more palatable to U.S. popular opinion.

The Democratic Alternative

George W. Bush has been a disaster as president. Corporate rule is blatant and unvarnished. The rich receive tax cuts while the poor suffer additional cutbacks in basic services. Abortion rights have been whittled away, and fundamental civil liberties have been sharply curtailed. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was initiated on the basis of Bush's blatant lies.

Progressives have grown increasingly desperate in their effort to turn Bush and the Republicans out of office. Still, the Democrats have controlled Congress since 2006 and little has changed. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could have used its power over the budget to force an end to the war. Instead, the Democrats handed Bush a blank check.

This recent experience provides yet another chapter in the sordid history of the Democratic Party, and yet it has failed to sway liberal opinion. Overwhelmingly, progressives remain committed to the Democrats. Most jumped on the Obama bandwagon, irked by the personal attacks coming from the Clinton camp. Nevertheless, in spite of the campaign bickering, the two Democratic candidates shared a similar political perspective, with little evidence of concrete policy differences.

Both Clinton and Obama tailored their messages to appeal to the wealthy and the well to do. The 2008 election has seen a dramatic reversal in the usual pattern of presidential campaign funding. In the past, the Republicans raised substantially more in contributions than the Democrats. This significant advantage was somewhat counterbalanced by union support, in both money and staff time, that went to the Democratic presidential candidate. As unions have declined, the Democrats have moved further into the center, actively courting corporate money.

This year, both Clinton and Obama have greatly outpaced Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, in accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions. The Democratic Party is no longer just a capitalist party committed to the defense of the existing system, but rather it has become the primary vehicle for corporate interests in the electoral arena.

Hillary Clinton

As the contest for the Democratic nomination was winnowed down to two candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton assumed the status of the establishment favorite. Much of her campaign advertising emphasized her experience, in the White House as Bill Clinton's wife, and then as U.S. Senator from New York. In fact, Bill Clinton's time in office was marked by the blockade of Iraq, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands of women and children. As president, Bill Clinton was anxious to demonstrate that those who dare to challenge U.S. strategic interests will be made to suffer the dire consequences.

Still, Hillary Clinton is far from an adjunct of her husband. A talented corporate lawyer, she is a shrewd political operative who can deliver an effective campaign speech. Many mainstream feminists enthusiastically support Clinton, in the belief that her election would represent a significant step toward gender equality. Still, on the crucial issue of abortion rights, Hillary Clinton has refused to speak out against a Congressional prohibition of federal funding for abortions for women on financial assistance (the Hyde Amendment). Although Clinton remains, if unenthusiastically, pro-choice, thus upholding the rights of middle-class women, she has abandoned low-income women, who are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to termination or seek an illicit, and dangerous, backdoor abortion.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama proved to be a far smoother, slicker campaigner than Hillary Clinton. He constantly presented himself as the candidate of those who want meaningful change, the outsider challenging the status quo. Most of the time, this claim remains empty rhetoric. When he does come forward with specific proposals, they fall well within the centrist mainstream. Obama rose through the ranks of the Illinois Democratic Party, a patronage machine that is unusually corrupt even by U.S. standards. As a corporate lawyer, and an aspiring politician, he cultivated close ties to unsavory developers looking for favors from state and local governments.

Of course, Obama's emergence as a credible presidential candidate marks a significant break with the past. The son of a Kenyan father and a white mother, he is the first person of color to be seriously considered as a presidential candidate by one of the mainstream parties. Racism is still so pervasive in the United States that many voters were looking for an excuse to deny Obama the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Clinton's advisors worked hard to subtly fan this racist feeling. Although the recent media frenzy surrounding Obama's Protestant minister, a liberal activist who has been known to employ inflammatory rhetoric, has eroded his support among white voters, Obama's initial momentum proved sufficient to carry him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

The plight of African Americans remains acute. Globalization has had a devastating impact on black ghettoes, where unemployment rates often exceed 50%. Nevertheless, electing an African American mainstream politician such as Obama as president will do little to change this underlying reality. In Massachusetts, where I live, an African American Democrat was recently elected governor. Deval Patrick acts as a close ally of Obama, and, like him, enjoyed a successful career as a corporate lawyer before seeking public office. During his first year in office, Patrick has set as his primary goal bringing casinos to Massachusetts. Instead of instituting taxes targeting the rich, the objective is to once again soak the poor. This is very much politics as usual.

Ralph Nader and the Greens

For those who have become disillusioned with the two- party shell game, Ralph Nader provides a third choice. Nader has been in the public eye for more than three decades, developing a certain credibility that enables him to gain access to the mainstream, corporate media, and to raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Nader's politics have remained consistent over the decades. Since his first public appearance as a personal injury lawyer exposing the failure of U.S. auto companies to build safe cars, Nader has always proclaimed his fervent confidence in the capitalist market economy. He clings to an unshakeable belief in the virtues of small business, although he remains deeply suspicious of large corporations. Nader is convinced that the system can be reformed, that capitalism can be regulated, and that greater transparency can guarantee the accountability of corporations to consumers.

Since Nader is, in essence, a liberal reformer, he has found it impossible to totally break from the Democratic Party. Although he is convinced that the Democratic Party is dominated by its corporate wing, he still looks toward an anti-corporate wing working from within, and he sees his role as strengthening that anti-corporate wing by bringing pressure from outside. Just as Nader adheres to a reformist position in relation to the capitalist system, he also adopts a reformist position in his approach to the Democratic Party.

For all of his faults, Nader represents a positive force in U.S. politics. He brings credibility to those who reject the two party system. He is not afraid to stand as an independent candidate even if this leads to a Republican victory, as, in all likelihood, it did in 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore. At a time when most liberals accept whatever the Democrats offer, Nader insists that the willingness to tolerate the lesser evil can only imply a passive acquiescence to a disastrous future.

Nevertheless, Ralph Nader does not present democratic socialists with a meaningful alternative. He has no interest in building a political party, but instead he views himself as an iconic figure free from any organizational constraints. Furthermore, he lacks a class analysis of the current system, and he is unable to articulate a vision of an alternative society.

In 2000, Nader campaigned as the presidential nominee of the Green Party. Since 2000, Nader has pursued his own path, and the Green Party has floundered. This year, Nader selected as his vice-presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez, who had been a prominent member of the California Green Party and who, in 2003, lost a closely contested non-partisan election for mayor of San Francisco. Gonzalez's decision to join Nader's ticket brought a sharp rebuke from three leading members of the California Green Party who are also local elected officials. All three officials publicly support Obama.

At the same time, Nader campaigns as an independent, the Green Party presidential nominee is likely to be Cynthia McKinney, an African American politician who has spent most of her career as a stalwart of the Democratic Party. McKinney served several terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her politics are similar to those of Nader, but she lacks his name recognition and personal stature. Even more than Nader, McKinney retains her ties to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The Socialist Alternative

Those searching for a radical alternative to the two party system will find both Nader and McKinney to be wanting. The unending war in Iraq, and the recent and rapid downturn in the economy, have radicalized a segment of the working class, especially those less than thirty. Socialists need to reach out to those interested in joining the movement, and the electoral arena can be an effective way to do this. As in Scotland, democratic socialists nominate candidates as part of a broader strategy to build a non-sectarian organization with roots in the working class.

The Socialist Party USA has presented presidential candidates for more than a century, starting with Gene Debs in 1900. This year, the Socialist Party has nominated Brian Moore, a peace activist from Florida, as its presidential candidate, and Stewart Alexander, an African American community activist from California, as its vice-presidential candidate. Both are committed socialists who will advance a clear alternative to liberal reformism.

The United States sits at the center of the sole remaining global empire. Not surprisingly, a large section of the working class identifies with the imperial power. The radical Left has been effectively marginalized, and it is difficult to gain a hearing for a socialist vision. Nevertheless, the 2008 election provides a good opportunity for the Socialist Party to reach beyond its usual core of supporters with a radical, anti-authoritarian message. It is an opportunity that we do not intend to miss.