“The people can vote for whoever they want.
I control the nominations.”
–Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, ca. 1870
The presidential election campaign was primarily a distraction. There were serious issues presumably at stake, notably the war and the economy, and the campaign not only ignored them but purposely obscured them.
The reason’s not far to seek. As the late Australian social scientist Alex Carey wrote, “The 20th century was characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” A trillion dollars spent every year on marketing in the US — where political candidates are sold like cars or coffee — has some effect.
The issues were important, and for that very reason could not be submitted to the voters for their consideration. The dirtiest secret of American politics — or at least the most important one — may not be the government’s torture policy, filthy as that is, but rather the contradiction between the interests of the tiny elite of possessors (perhaps less than 1% of the US population) and those of the large majority of the population. But of course it’s not *very* secret: as Noam Chomsky points out,
This is a business-run society: you market commodities, you market candidates. The public are the victims and they know it, and that’s why 80% think, more or less accurately, that the country is run by a few big interests looking after themselves. So people are not deluded, they just don’t really see any choices…
–and, as a result, many ignore the distraction thrown up for them by the advertising/propaganda industry, the “campaign” (particularly protracted in a year when the two major parties are noticeably promoting unpopular policies on the war and the economy: there’s a lot of distraction to be done). About half of the electorate doesn’t vote, in part because they think not unreasonably that the outcome of the election will make little difference to them and polices won’t change much. Even in the most recent presidential election “landslides” — 1972 and 1984 — three out of four of the eligible voters did *not* vote for the winning candidate (Nixon and Reagan, respectively).
Most of the media propaganda that passes for politics in the US is directed to what Gore Vidal calls the “chattering classes” — about a quarter of the total US population who make up what some have called the “tertiary bourgeoisie,” i.e., most of those with a traditional college (third level) education. Given that the actual ruling class — the owners — is probably less than one percent of the US population (approximately a million people), that leaves three-quarters of the US population generally ignored in the “manufacture of consent” — and they return the favor, as they are meant to.
It has not escaped the attention of our rulers in general that people who work long hours and are anxious about their circumstances can spend less time finding out how those circumstances are determined, talking to other people about it, and doing something about it — i.e., practicing democracy. The US anti-war movement of the 1960s arose in part from the greater prosperity and relative economic equality of that decade in comparison with this one. Americans had the leisure to do politics, as the Trilateral Commission described in dismay in “The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies” (1976). The crisis was that there was too much democracy: that had to be stopped, by the counter-policies of neoliberalism. American politics in the last thirty years shows that it was.
Of course that 25% of the population who are the especial concern of the propaganda system show the effects as well. It is a surprising fact that, throughout the Vietnam War, support for the US government’s position was directly (not inversely) proportional to years of formal education; that is, in spite of the myth that the anti-war movement of those days was confined to the colleges, in fact the college-educated were more likely to support administration policy than those without a bachelor’s degree. The ideological institutions — the universities and the media — were doing their job, even though by the end of the 1960s, 70% of Americans came to say that the Vietnam War was “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” according to longitudinal studies by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations.
It is quite remarkable that, prescinding from the enthusiasms of the moment (Obama v. McCain et al.), polls show that Americans hold political opinions of a general social-democratic/New Deal sort — opinions, it need hardly be said, that they do not hear in the media or from Obama, McCain et al. The result is that the two business parties, for all their struggle at product-differentiation, like Coke and Pepsi, support largely similar policies that are generally to the Right of those favored by a majority of the population. Medical care is just the most obvious example, and is has been for decades.
In an important article (“If Obama Loses,” August 18, 2008), Paul Street writes about “Thomas Frank’s widely mentioned but commonly misunderstood book on why so many white working class Americans vote for regressive Republicans instead of following their supposed natural ‘pocketbook’ interests by backing Democrats. Released just before Bush defeated Kerry with no small help from working class whites, Frank’s ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’ (New York: 2004) has generally been taken to have argued that the GOP distracts stupid ‘heartland’ (white working-class) voters away from their real economic interests with diversionary issues like abortion, guns, and gay rights. Insofar as Democrats bear responsibility for the loss of their former working class constituency, Frank is often said to have argued that this was due to their excessive liberalism on these and other ‘cultural issues’.
“But Frank’s argument was more complex or perhaps more simple. At the end of his book, in a passage that very few leading commentators seem to have read (a shining exception is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman), Frank clearly and (in my opinion) correctly blamed the long corporatist shift of the Democratic Party to the business-friendly right and away from honest discussion of — and opposition to — economic and class inequality for much of whatever success the GOP achieved in winning over working-class whites.”
Street quotes Larry M. Bartels, director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton: “Frank exaggerated white working-class voters’ susceptibility to cultural diversion: ‘In recent presidential elections,’ [Bartels] notes, ‘affluent voters, who tend to be liberal on cultural matters, are about twice as likely as middle-class and poor voters to make their decisions on the basis of their cultural concerns.’ In other words, working class white voters don’t especially privilege ‘cultural issues’ (God, guns, gays, gender, and abortion) over pocketbook concerns and actually do that less than wealthier voters.”
Bartels summarizes an effect of the propaganda system. “Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.” It’s the tertiary bourgeoisie who are (taught to be) distracted by these issues.
Like the presidential election in which they figure, these issues are meant to be a distraction — and they are safe issues from our rulers’ point of view, because decisions on them do not much affect central governmental responsibilities like war and the economy. In our America, policy is well-insulated from politics: we have at best a simulacrum of democracy. Passionately preferring a candidate who’s within the allowable limits of debate is a recipe for irrelevance, as it’s meant to be. The show must go on; ignore the little man (many men, actually) behind the curtain.
THE WAR WAS NOT A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN ISSUE
With two-thirds of Americans saying since the beginning of the campaign that the war in Iraq was a mistake, one might ask why it was removed as an issue. Why didn’t one candidate put himself in opposition to the war and promise a real withdrawal from Iraq (which Obama didn’t promise)? That one could even have been McCain, once Obama’s scenery-chewing over Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak,” in DC-speak) made it clear to all (except those liberals who assumed that he would change in office) that he was not an anti-war candidate. McCain could have protected himself from the charge of flip-flopping by off-loading the responsibility to the “commanders on the ground’ (as they both did anyway) and claim that conditions had changed (either for the better or the worse — it wouldn’t matter).
The answer reveals the nature of the presidential candidacy. Far from being driven by the polls, presidential candidates are auditioning for a role essentially in the gift of the elite. (The media, owned almost entirely by the largest corporations — there are brave exceptions like *CommonSense* — are the necessary enforcers.) When the contrast between the views of the elite and those of the majority becomes clear, the candidates know to take up those of the elite. (In 1992 Clinton was barely elected with a vague promise of providing health care as all other industrialized states do. But when it became clear that Americans favored that plan — “single-payer health care” — when it was explained to them — the Clinton administration replied that it “was not politically possible”: i.e., the elite did not support it.)
Obama was never for the ending of the war and the withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq. He was never opposed to the war in principle, just tactically: it was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. But “removing the troops now,” he said three years ago, “would result in a massive bloodbath for both countries,” and so couldn’t be done. He criticized the hash the Bush administration had made of the war, and well-funded Democratic party front groups like MoveOn and Americans Against Escalation in Iraq [sic] worked to co-opt the antiwar movement for he Democratic party, but Obama could not adopt a principled opposition to the war.
The reason was that, for all the effort to use the war against the Republicans, the Democrats like the Republicans support the general US government policy of which the war in Iraq is a part. With Israel as its “local cop on the beat,” as the Nixon administration put it, the US has conducted a generation-long war for the control of energy resources in a 1500-mile radius around the Persian Gulf — from the Mediterranean to the Indus valley, from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. That war will continue in the coming administration. And not because the US is dependent on Middle East oil: less than 10% of the oil the US imports for domestic consumption comes for the Middle East.
Rather, the US goal in every administration for half a century has been to secure by means of the control of Middle East oil and gas what Obama foreign policy advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski calls “indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region.” Those economies in Europe and northeast Asia (China, Japan and South Korea) are the real rivals to US economic hegemony, and the control of energy resources gives the US the whip-hand. We will not give it up in the new administration, so the war was not an issue.
And it should by now be clear that, whether we call them al-Qaida, Taliban, insurgents, terrorists or militants, the people whom we’re trying to kill in the Middle East are those who want us out of their countries and off of their resources. In order to convince Americans to kill and die and suffer in this cause, the Bush administration has repeatedly lied about the situation, from trumpeting the non-existent weapons of mass destruction to, apparently, forging incriminating letters. But the new administration will continue with the biggest lie, that the US is fighting a “war on terror” — as they expand the war to Pakistan, which the Realists believe is the center of armed opposition to US control of he Middle East.
There are in fact presidential candidates who — unlike McCain and Obama — have serious things to say about the US government’s war policy. The following is from a statement presented to the media on September 10 by Rep. Ron Paul, former Republican presidential candidate, joined by Cynthia McKinney, Green Party presidential candidate, Chuck Baldwin, Constitution Party presidential candidate, and Ralph Nader, independent presidential candidate; former Rep. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, said he also agreed with the statement :
“The Iraq War must end as quickly as possible with removal of all our soldiers from the region. We must initiate the return of our soldiers from around the world, including Korea, Japan, Europe and the entire Middle East. We must cease the war propaganda, threats of a blockade and plans for attacks on Iran, nor should we reignite the cold war with Russia over Georgia. We must be willing to talk to all countries and offer friendship and trade and travel to all who are willing. We must take off the table the threat of a nuclear first strike against all nations.
“We must protect the privacy and civil liberties of all persons under US jurisdiction. We must repeal or radically change the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the FISA legislation. We must reject the notion and practice of torture, eliminations of habeas corpus, secret tribunals, and secret prisons. We must deny immunity for corporations that spy willingly on the people for the benefit of the government. We must reject the unitary presidency, the illegal use of signing statements and excessive use of executive orders.”
THE ECONOMY WAS NOT A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN ISSUE
Similarly, the other great issue of the day, represented in the Wall Street bailout, saw no real difference between the candidates. On the economy, as on the war, McCain could have employed a rhetorical flanking maneuver and taken the popular position in opposition to the bailout, along with the House Republicans, painting Obama as a tool of Wall Street (which he clearly was: the Obama campaign even received more contributions from Wall Street than McCain’s did). It would however have taken more guts than McCain had to attack Obama on the bailout, as on the war. More importantly, the elite position favored the bailout, despite the fact that constituents’ calls to congressional representatives were overwhelmingly in opposition.
The joint statement of the third-party candidates did however depart form elite demands on economic issues:
“We believe that there should be no increase in the national debt. The burden of debt placed on the next generation is unjust and already threatening our economy and the value of our dollar. We must pay our bills as we go along and not unfairly place this burden on a future generation.
“We seek a thorough investigation, evaluation and audit of the Federal Reserve System and its cozy relationships with the banking, corporate, and other financial institutions. The arbitrary power to create money and credit out of thin air behind closed doors for the benefit of commercial interests must be ended. There should be no taxpayer bailouts of corporations and no corporate subsidies. Corporations should be aggressively prosecuted for their crimes and frauds.”
POLICY IS INSULATED FROM POLITICS
In the last days of the lesser Bush, it seems that US government policy is being made almost entirely within the executive branch, in the clash of two factions — the Neocons, who gained control after the 9/11/01 attacks and produced the invasion of Iraq, and the “Realists” (for lack of a better name), the foreign-policy establishment that continues as administrations come and go. There’s no real opposition to the policies that issue from their rivalry. Both the legislative and judicial branches are irrelevant. Congress has resigned to the administration its authority to make war, to make appropriations (in the bailout of Wall Street) — and even to make criminal law (in the PATRIOT Act, FISA, and MCA); the Supreme Court has made decisions on torture and false imprisonment, but ineffectually: the torture regime and the secret prisons still exist, and the courts have not released prisoners from Guantanamo, originally and openly designed designed to be outside the scope of the US courts.
Nothing characterizes the last year of the Bush administration more than the break with the Neocon dominance and the reassertion of control by the Realists. The result of incapacity? (Was Bush in fact publicly drunk at the Olympics, as rumored on the net?) Or pique? (The split between the White House and the Neocons in the office of the Vice-President may already be in place at the time of the Libby affair.)
In any case, Cheney’s easy use of Bush as an instrument (seen in the investigation the Washington Post had done but wouldn’t publish before the 2006 election) is no more. That means that the US government is largely back in the hands of a foreign policy establishment that brought us wars from Kennedy to Clinton. And their drive for “full spectrum dominance” — hegemony, not survival — may finally make them more dangerous than the murderous Neocons. What some psychologists call splitting should be avoided (“Since the Neocons are bad, the foreign policy establishment must be good”) — noticeable as it may be in the presidential campaign…
There seems to have been a debate within the Bush administration on how best to construct the enemy that justifies the continuing US military presence in the Middle East: the Neocons wanted to make a bete noire out of a pacific and indeed helpful (to US regional interests) Iran, while the Realists wanted to do the same with terrorists in Pakistan — and they seem to have the upper hand in both the old and new administration.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was perhaps the senior member of the foreign policy establishment in the Bush administration, and it seemed clear that his people would have charge of the ongoing Middle East War, regardless of who the new president was. Obama even suggested that he would like Gates to remain at the Pentagon (and Paulson at the Treasury). In 2004, Gates co-chaired, along with Obama advisor Brzezinski, a Council on Foreign Relations task force report entitled, “Iran: Time for a New Approach,” the main point of which was to advocate a policy of “limited or selective engagement with the current Iranian government.”
Military action against Pakistan — which Obama called for more urgently than McCain — was already underway, and Obama’s intention was to improve upon the “baby steps” (as his adviser said) already taken by the Realists in the Bush administration in killing Pakistanis (many of them apparently Pushtun babies who would take no more steps). But it was also clear that McCain in office would give way to the Realist consensus in the Pentagon and State Department. (Both McCain and Obama said that they will be guided by the “commanders on the ground”). The Neocons — holed up in the OVP and concentrating on avoiding prosecution (that’s what the Military Commissions Act was about) — have been largely brushed aside.
If one means the consideration of possible policy changes, the presidential election did not take place, and the new administration will present a strategic continuity with the old, both domestically and in the matter of killing foreigners. God help us.