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The NObama left


5:45 pm - November 4th 2008

by Jim Jepps    


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For most of the left the range of support for Obama has ranged from a passive “I’d prefer it if he’d beat the other guy” to an over the top enthusiasm at an historic turning point (like me), but a small section of the left has a different take on the US elections, one that actively discourages a vote for Obama, no matter what the consequences.

Part of this attitude is best demonstrated by that brilliant Mao anecdote when an American (I think it might have been Nixon) rebuked him for China’s one party system. He smiled and said “But America has a one party system too, but with typical capitalist extravagance you have two parties.” I respect that.

It comes from years of Repubocrat policies where it’s been difficult to slide a cigarette paper between the two parties. But right now you could park a bus in the gap between the tickets, and then some. The neo-conservative agenda of the Republicans isn’t just a set of different flavour policies, like the difference between Coke and Pepsi, it is a fundamentalist agenda of war, privatisation and imperial dominance. Obama might not be a pacifist but he ain’t George Bush neither.

When Dick Cheney described McCain as a “man who’d looked into the face of evil and not flinched” it’s difficult not to smile and secretly insert your own joke. After all Bush and McCain were two men who publicly celebrated McCain’s birthday as the worst excesses of Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the south. There is something worth despising there and it’s well past time they were gone.

The NObama left is intimately involved in the struggle for women’s rights, but given the VP choice between an anti-abortionist who believes in abstinence only sex ed and a man who’s helped draft some of the most progressive legislation on women’s rights in his long years in congress there’s just a shrug. No difference?

To the campaigners who have tirelessly campaigned against further military adventures into Iran there’s a clear choice between candidates who sing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” and a candidate that has consistently advocated diplomatic routes even when he was taking enormous flak for it. But no – to the NObama left it’s all lipstick on an imperialist lapdog.

The Left Press

How does this section of the left try to relate to the new mood for fairness and change? By trying to spread cynicism. Now don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty to criticise, but there’s a big picture too. If we look at this particular section of the US left press we see that their tone has been extremely negative with little emphasis on genuine alternatives.

The US paper Socialist Worker, which as it happens is often an interesting read, has shifted over the last few months from outright attacks on the Democrats (and occasional asides about the Republicans) to a more nuanced position around whether Obama will be able to “hold his nerve” when in office. I suspect the editorial line has had to shift because readers and sellers just weren’t impressed. But when on their election night page they say “There isn’t much suspense about who will win the presidential election” I mean – what?!?! On what planet???

The anti-capitalist magazine Left Turn takes that up a notch and says “As libertarian leftists, we view presidential contests as egregious reaffirmations of the state,” and so the current issue literally has no coverage of the election at all. It just isn’t important enough to warrant even a tiny articlette. That’s pretty egregious in itself.

When Patrick Cockburn says of Biden (the third most liberal voting Senator) “In his single person is combined everything that is loathsome about the Democratic Party” it isn’t simply a genuine political disagreement, there’s a pathology that’s removed the ability to make a proportional political analysis. So it isn’t that much of a surprise when he goes on to say of Obama, “In the event of Obama’s victory, the most immediate consequence overseas will most likely be brusque imperial reassertion” which is mirrored by the likes of Ian Sinclair on Zmag who denounces “Obama’s hawkish pronouncements”. They don’t think he might, if nothing else, be constrained by his base who want a withdrawal from Iraq then?

It’s one thing to point to Obama’s willingness to reinforce the troops in Afghanistan or his politically mainstream position on Israel and argue for more consistent peacenik policies but to paint him as the devil just doesn’t make sense, and it certainly doesn’t recognise genuine advances when they occur. A sense of perspective seems utterly foreign to these voices, and their reward is to become ever more marginalised.

So what of the progressive alternatives to Obama?

There are only two alternative candidates worth mentioning. First there’s Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party. She made her name questioning the official story of the 9/11 attacks and her campaign disgraced itself when she claimed, with no evidence what-so-ever, that thousands of prisoners had been executed during Hurricane Katrina. Even large numbers of Greens aren’t supporting her. She certainly is not a threat and not that interesting either.

Then we have the hardy perennial Ralph Nader who is in a no win situation. We’re annoyed at him when he’s irrelevant, and annoyed at him when he makes a difference to the outcome. That’s a tough place to be, but he’s got broad shoulders. He needs them with that big head of his that he has to carry around.

Both campaigns have been dominated by lack lustre, top down organisation in an election where the main news is the sheer scale of grass roots political participation and neither campaign has been able to impress with any strategic direction, essentially confused by a progressive mood that they’ve been entirely unable to understand.

The candidates have been posturing to the left but in fact they have fed cynicism and impotence, asking people to sneer from the sidelines as history happens, maybe you could put a hat on that stuff and call it radicalism but it don’t smell right from here. I don’t want to overstate this but they are doing a good impression of people who mistake being miserable for being left wing, or one’s who are so concerned with never being wrong they end up never being right.

Whilst we’re not talking big numbers here (last time Nader achieved 0.38% of the vote and the Greens 0.1%) this masks two important factors to the outcome. One is where those crucial votes are cast, which could make a real difference in tight states. The second is that this also hides the effect of having left candidates breeding indifference in the electorate. Whilst it’s unlikely someone like McKinney will persuade many people to vote for her she can reinforce in people’s minds the idea that there’s no point voting at all in this election. That’s extremely damaging to progressive politics.

Whilst the Democrats have been trying to raise the expectations of ordinary people and empower them to be a motor for change the leftist candidates have concentrated on being special people “speaking truth to power”, the isolated politics of the moral high ground. As voters literally queue for hours to cast their ballot inspired by the slogan “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” that momentum can and is being used for social good – but if the left wants to be part of that it has to make friends with it.

No previous presidencial candidate has been a community organizer, or anything close to it, and no recent presidential campaign has been as bottom up as Obama’s. In a time when the political landscape is being reshaped the left candidates’ campaigns reek of sterility and old style dogma.

I’ve no quibble with those who say Obama is not superman or Jesus, it’s true, he’s better than that. He’s real and he opens up the possibility of change – I do have a problem with those who’d rather have clean hands, in order to be distanced from anything Obama does wrong than get their hands dirty and make the world a better place even by one degree.

Did it have to be that way?

Whilst Nader’s campaign doesn’t even have the pretence of building up an organisation he does have interesting things to say. In one third party debate (with the Constitution Party candidate) he rebuked left wing Obama supporters for giving away their vote too easily. In a nuanced discussion he stated that voting Obama was not wrong but that we should use that vote to pull him to the left, and that can only be done if you are prepared to vote against him. “Don’t give them your vote too easily” he implored.

It seems to me that this points the way towards how an effective and relevant left liberal candidacy could have looked. Whilst Obama represents a real window of opportunity many of the other Democrats standing for election are just more meat for the grinder. A good presidential campaign could have been used to promote decent alternatives at the base – trying to build strong local hubs whilst supporting the overall message of change, and influencing it.

In much the way that Sian Berry’s campaign for London Mayor successfully positioned itself as part of the big picture, essentially as a supporting candidacy for Livingstone and Green assembly candidates, it enabled the Greens to hold up their vote in extremely difficult circumstances where the left and Liberal Democrat votes were pulped between the two big hitters. A left third party candidate could have openly called for a vote for Obama where it matters (in my view almost everywhere) whilst generating real interest around local candidacies of good progressive independents.

The two independent senators, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Saunders, show that it is possible to get electoral success outside of the big two but neither of the left presidential candidates have a swath of local campaigns to support. They have no base and don’t appear interested in developing one. Unlike for the Democrats for them it’s all about the top job, and I tell you, it takes something to be more heirarchical than the Democrats.

A movement that can hold the government to account is more than a talking head – it has to be made up of committed and engaged rank and file activists. The anti-war mobilisations, the women’s movement, the trade unions and all those other social currents are jam packed with talent but if the left doesn’t orientate on them in a way that doesn’t just disregard the big issues they’ll never tap into that fantastic resource.

In the words of Joe Trippi “We are all busy with change today. But the status quo will not be wiped away with this election. The real work to change this country begins anew tomorrow. After today no one will ever doubt again that you have the power — so use it. Be proud of what your work has accomplished, but change is going to take more hard work from all of us.”

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About the author
Jim Jepps is a socialist in the Green Party and formerly blogged at the Daily (Maybe). He currently writes on London politics, community and the environment at Big Smoke.
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Story Filed Under: Foreign affairs ,United States

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Reader comments


Great post.

There will never be a perfect candidate, because we are an imperfect species. Our imperfections are to be embraced and treated compassionately and our better natures, our hopes and our actions cherished and encouraged. Only that way can we achieve anything together – and anyone sneering at the long queues of people waiting patiently to vote should question their motives – what is this, if not your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…. and hoping for change, ….for a better tomorrow, the dream of America, e pluribus unum.

Thank you

Do you have a brilliant Stalin or Hitler quote with which to follow up Mao’s by any chance?

And BO is better than Superman or Jesus?

Has the world gone mad?

It’s going to be a long hangover….

Early bed for me though.

Jim,

I think that the nuanced approach would be the better one because Rachel North correctly says no candidate is ever perfect…I think this does represent a watershed incidentally though what will be made of it will depend alot on what happens when he gets into office and how big a honeymoon the margin of his victory affords him…

Thanks guys – and I *do* have Hitler and Stalin quotes to wheel out at appropriate moments – I don’t agree with them either. It’s a quote not a pledge of allegiance 🙂

Well the outcome of the financial crisis will probably determine the next couple of years just as much as the new government – but I really believe this is a turning point in world politics (but I must calm down about it!)

Deep breaths, deep breaths…

Always playing the man rather than the ball eh cjcjc.

anyway – excellent article Jim. I think the bit on the relevance of Cynthia and Ralph Nader is spot on too. I only hope Rupert Read takes note 🙂

This is an excellent piece!

I may be wrong but I think you mean Alexander Cockburn and not Patrick Cockburn.

Well spotted Ryan – I do!

And BO is better than Superman or Jesus?

*Whispers*

He’s saying that neither of them exist.

hiya jim, sunny!
i’m watchin cnn btw, much better than bbc coverage …

i AGREE with the Joe Trippi quote. (See http://twitter.com/RupertRead ).

i find your comment jim that somehow McKinney or Nader even having the temerity to stand at all is somehow a disincentive to ordinary citizens to vote at all pretty bizarre, in fact almost incomprehensible, Jim. [Otherise, a good and interesting post: thanks.]

do read Alexander Cockburn’s article. Yes, what is of course needed now is a mass movement to keep Obama from being as dodgy as he has been much of the time since the Primaries ended.

And on foreign policy: Outflanking Bush on Afghanistan is a pretty worrying sign. Never forget the very dangerous thing about Democrats: they generally spend ages (and money and lives) trying to prove their virility. Biden is a likely case in point.

Having said all that: if I were in a swing state today I would definitely have voted for Obama. McKinney has performed poorly in the campaign; she has been a real disappointment. There is some chance that tonight is a new start, and not merely a false dawn. The hope that has been generated by Obama’s extraodinary and mostly very clever campaign might yet be its own salvation: if it can be leveraged into a movement that stops Obama from selling out more than he already has, and maybe even pull him back some.

[A lot of course will depend on the Senate — that is what one should really watch closely tonight! I predict that the Democrats will come amazingly close to 60 seats.]

haven’t seen Obama on any peace missions to Gaza yet!


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