First published on Counterpunch, March 27-29, 2015
The Violin Model
The late and formerly Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism”: the cloaking of plutocratic agendas, of service to the rich and powerful, in the false rebels’ clothing of popular rebellion; the hidden and “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) masquerading in the false rebels’ clothes of the common people. “That elite is most successful,” Hitchens added in his study of the classically neoliberal Clinton presidency, “which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.”
The Democrats have no monopoly on such manipulation in the two-party system. The Republicans have long practiced their own noxious version. Still, the division of labor between the two dominant corporate and imperial political entities in the US party system assigns the greater role to the Democrats when it comes to posing as the political arm of the working class majority, the poor, women, and minorities at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. For the system-serving task of shutting down, containing, and co-opting popular social movements and channeling popular energies into the nation’s corporate-managed, narrow-spectrum, major-party, big money, and candidate centered electoral system, the Democrats are by far and away “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford’s phrase). For the last century, the Marxist political analyst Lance Selfa notes, it has been their job to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive segments of the electorate” by masquerading as “the party of the people.”
The Democratic Party has been most adept at ruling in accord with what David Rothkopf (a former Clinton administration official) in November 2008 called (commenting on then President Elect Obama’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments) “the violin model.” Under the “violin model,” Rothkopf said, “you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, “you” gain and hold office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric even as you govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions and class hierarchies.
The Obama administration has been an especially revolting but instructive violin lesson to say the last. Compare the 2008 Obama campaign’s progressive-sounding “hope” and “change” rhetoric and imagery/branding with the Obama administration’s predictably ugly corporate and imperial record, including such highlights:
The bail out and protection of the Wall Street financial institutions and chieftains who collapsed the US and global economy.
The passage of a Republican-inspired version of health insurance reform (the absurdly named “Affordable Care Act”) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love.
The undermining of urgent global efforts to impose binding limits on world carbon emissions and its related approval and encouragement of the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading producer of gas and oil.
Obama’s embrace of the expanding US-totalitarian national security and surveillance state and his related and unprecedented repression of leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists.
Obama’s relentless and reckless military imperialism within and beyond the Muslim world – something that has fueled the dramatic expansion of extremist Islamic jihad and sparked a dangerous new confrontation with Russia.
An Unworthy Endeavor
In recent months, “Progressive Democrats” have been hoping to breathe new life into the United States’ hopelessly 1%-dominated “two party system” by running the nominally socialist, technically Independent, and genuinely populist and domestically progressive US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to challenge the Clinton-Obama arch-neoliberal and imperial corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Iowa 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus and the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary. Leaving aside Sanders’ terrible record on Israel-Palestine and U.S. imperial policy more broadly and focusing just on domestic policy, it is a complete waste of time – not a worthy endeavor. Both of the nation’s dominant political “parties” now stand well to the right of majority public opinion and in accord with the views of the elite political “donor class” on numerous key policy issues.
Basic candor requires acknowledgement that the Democratic Party has in recent decades become an ever more full-fledged and unabashed rich folks’ party, not to mention a longstanding party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals – much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a socialist – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or (in the chance of highly unlikely developments) some other corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair all-too accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] bird of prey” seem more progressive than they really are? Why lend a hand to the corporate-captive Democrats’ efforts to manipulate populism in service to elitism?
“Not Emblematic of a Democracy”
Thankfully, perhaps, the ever-escalating hyper-plutocratic cost of presidential campaigning seems to be turning Sanders against making a run for the White House either outside or inside the Democratic Party. Sanders has become increasingly reticent about the effort. It’s not because he thinks that Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidates are likely to advance anything remotely like a progressive agenda to tackle the issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change (issues that Sanders sincerely holds dear, I think). As Sanders;’ adviser Tad Devine recently told Salon’s Luke Brinker, “We have not really raised money…He [Sanders] has absolutely no rapport with the people giving him money…As a matter of fact, he’s spending most of his time trashing them.” By Brinker’s calculation, Sanders’ Senate campaign committee possessed a modes $4.5 million while his political action committee, Progressive Voters of America, raised just over $535,000. “Meanwhile,” Blinker noted:
“Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each aim to raise well north of a cool billion for their campaigns; Bush’s financial juggernaut is already on track to collect $50 million to $100 million for the first three months of this year, and while his party’s base is decidedly skeptical of him, his cash cow of a campaign may ultimately be too much for his rivals to overcome. As for Clinton, there’s no doubt that much of her strength in early polls reflects goodwill among Democratic voters — of course, 2008 attests that such sentiment can be fickle — but is that what’s really behind the recent spate of headlines that for all her flaws, Democrats have no other alternative? Hardly. Above all else, the party apparatus is loyal to Clinton because, in the unlikely event that she doesn’t run, they don’t see any other candidate who could build anything like her money machine, and in the near-certain case that she does enter the race, strategists don’t see how any potential rival would compete against it. So why alienate a potential president by backing someone else” (emphasis added).
Also significant, the corporate media is highly unlikely to treat Sanders as a “serious” and “viable” candidate – an additional and related death blow to his chances.
Never mind that much of what Sanders advocates – genuinely progressive taxation, restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, single-payer health insurance, strong financial regulation, public financing of elections, large-scale green jobs programs to put millions to decently paid work on socially and ecologically necessary tasks and more – is popular with the US working class majority of citizens. That’s technically irrelevant under “our” current system of 1% elections, 1% lobbying, and 1% media, etc As Blinker notes, “the question of who counts as [a] ‘serious’ [presidential candidate] cannot be separated from the question of money. What we’re witnessing is a vicious circle whereby candidates struggle to raise money and therefore struggle to get their messages out and rise in the polls, and because said candidates’ polling numbers are nothing to write home about, it’s difficult to get donors to pay up…The implications of such an order are nothing if not pernicious….Economic inequality and political inequality, it turns out, are indelibly linked….Call it what you will — a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a corporatocracy — but this state of affairs is not emblematic of a democracy.”
Gee, you don’t say. A saving grace for a Sanders run would if he were to drop in advance all hopes of winning and using the presidential campaign stage as an educational platform. He could exploit the process to relentlessly expose the authoritarian and dollar-drenched absurdity of the nation’s oligarchic 1% elections and party system. He could advocate for a powerful new popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed candidate-centered quadrennial electoral spectacles that are staged for as yet another method for marginalizing and containing the populace ever four years – a movement that would include in its list of demands the creation of a political party and elections systems worthy of passionate citizen engagement.
Imagine a Democratic Society
Sanders or other potential electoral “saviors” aside, backing a “progressive” (whatever that term means anymore) candidate in Democratic presidential Caucus and primary race is not the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate-imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Progressives” in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party today and against the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the US elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire – the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states). Alternately, and more positively, they could do something along the lines of what Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011 – hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage:
“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you…What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”
With the first $5 billion presidential campaign contest coming around corner, an “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky) very possibly pitting two dynastic families (the Clintons and the Bushes have together have held the White House for 20 of the last 26 years) against one another in an ever more openly oligarchic New Gilded Age, now seems as good a time as ever to embrace a different, genuinely popular type of politics from the bottom up. The top-down method has failed miserably and not incidentally threatens to wipe out life on Earth in the not so distant future.
Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).