Z Magazine December 2012. By Paul Street. In his November 6 re-election night speech inChicago, Barack Obama made strong claims about “why [American] elections matter. It’s not small,” the president said, “it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy…. And when we…make big decisions as a country, it stirs passions…. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives…for a chance to argue about the issues that matter—the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”
Serious Concerns by International Observers
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had a much less sanguine take on U.S. elections. It issued a report voicing serious concerns over voting rights, the accuracy of voter lists, and the degree of access given to international observers in the United States. In an assessment of the 2012 contests released one day after the election, the OSCE found much that violated international norms on universal suffrage, one-person-one-vote, and proportionality in voting and representation:
- 50 million of 237 million eligible U.S. voters were un-registered to vote
- Many voters were listed on multiple electoral lists in different states
- 4.1 million citizens who are residents of U.S. territories were ineligible to vote
- 600,000 citizens who are residents of the District of Columbia (D.C.) could not vote for a U.S. Congressperson or a U.S. Senator
- 6 million U.S. citizens were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, including 2.6 million Americans who had served their sentence
- The presidential campaign “focused on undecided voters in only a few closely contested states,” thanks to the Electoral College system, which awards the presidency not on the basis of the popular vote but through a significantly un-representative “winner take all” system that gives all of each state’s electoral count to the candidate who polls a plurality in that state
- Third party candidates “received minimal attention” from a corporate “broadcast media” that “dedicated the greater part of their electoral coverage to non-substantive issues such as daily opinion polls and the holding of campaign events (64 percent), often at the expense of substantive discussion of policy (36 percent)”
- The elections were “the most expensive to date” and there are “no limits to campaign spending, including from corporations,” who are free (under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United) to make unlimited “independent expenditures” for or against a candidate
- Much of the money spent on the election was “exempt from disclosure requirements, raising transparency concerns”
- There were “instances of long queues of voters and shortages in polling station staff that caused delays in voting”
- A number of states, including the key battleground state of Ohio, prevented OSCE from fully monitoring the election
- The competitiveness of election contests in many U.S. congressional districts was very low thanks to the role of state-level “partisan considerations” in drawing Congressional districts
The OSCE report is far from a shining appraisal for a nation that claims to be an exceptional global homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy. The problems discovered by the European observers help explain why just 126 million Americans voted, a comparatively low turnout rate of 57.5 percent from the world’s beacon of popular self-governance
Some “Issues That Matter”
Climate Change: Also relevant in that regard was the 2012 presidential campaign’s striking failure to seriously, substantively, and positively address many of the most vital matters facing both the U.S. and the world in the 21st century. How did the latest U.S. “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky’s term) do when it came to what the president calls “the issues that matter?”
One such issue is the existential threat posed by anthropogenic global warming (AGW), intensifying at a scale that has surprised even some of the most pessimistic analysts. According to research released last June by the science journal Nature, humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction—a threat caused by its reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The report reveals that our planet’s biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a “tipping point,” meaning that all of the planet’s ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life. The leading threat by far is human-generated climate change, which contributed to the strength of the remarkable hurricane (Sandy) that hit the eastern U.S. seaboard one week before the election.
AGW was almost completely absent from the 2012 campaign. Obama made a brief reference to the fact that he thinks that climate change actually exists. Mitt Romney claimed to doubt the existence of a scientific consensus on the problem, a departure from one of his earlier positions. In the second debate, Obama and Romney vied to outdo each other in touting their commitment to making American “energy independent” through fracking, expanded domestic and offshore drilling, and accelerated “clean coal” and natural gas extraction. Neither seemed to care about what the world is going to look like after a few more decades of such practices.
It was futile, perhaps, to hope that Hurricane Sandy—its remarkable fury driven by human-warmed ocean waters—would crash the deafening ecocidal silence. The record setting heat, droughts, and forest and grass fires of 2012 didn’t accomplish the task, so how was yet another example of Nature’s revenge going to make any difference with less than a week to go?
Nuclear War: The threat of nuclear war remains very real in the post-Cold War era, as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently reminded us. Still, it was a non-issue in the election. If anything, Obama and Romney deepened the danger by obsessively inveighing against the supposed dire nuclear threat posed by Iran—which is far from having anything close to a weapon—while ignoring the very real nuclear threat posed by Israel, which possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads and, unlike Iran, refuses to allow inspections or sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both Romney and Obama stood with Israel in defiance of overwhelming global opinion—including majority Israeli opinion—supporting the obvious solution to the dangerous possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: turning the region into a nuclear weapons free zone (Noam Chomsky, “Issues That Obama and Romney Avoid,” New York Times Syndicate, reprinted on ZNet, October 6, 2012). To make matters worse, Romney insisted on rattling sabers about heavily nuclear-armed Russia and its client Syrian regime in ways that struck careful observers as provocative.
Mass Poverty: Economic want and destitution are endemic in a world where 3 billion people struggle to get by on less than two and a half dollars a day. Poverty is a major problem in the U.S., where 1 in 6 citizens live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty line, 1 in 3 live at or below 150 percent of official poverty, half of all households are officially low-income, and more than a million children live in “deep poverty”—at less than half the poverty level.
The issue was shockingly absent from the presidential campaign beyond some opportunistic references by Romney and a few minor and indirect references in Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s convention speeches. The poor remain starkly invisible in American electoral politics, reflecting the absence of influence that flows from their lack of money and also from decades of bipartisan color-coded demonization and shaming of the “underclass” (see Paul Street, “Poverty a Dirty and Missing Word at the Political Conventions,” ZNet, September 17, 2012).
Inequality/Plutocracy: A fourth major issue, intimately related to the third, is inequality and its many terrible consequences, including the plutocratic domination of society and politics by the wealthy few. Economic disparity is a huge problem in the United States, where the top 1 percent owns roughly 40 percent of the wealth, nearly two-thirds of financial assets, most of the media and a probably larger share of “our” elected officials.
“We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This was the issue Occupy Wall Street briefly placed front and center in the political culture just more than a year ago, before it was dismantled by force to make way for the aforementioned quadrennial extravaganza—the dominant news story since early this year.
It was mostly absent from the election, beyond Obama claiming that he and the mega-billionaire Warren Buffett think the rich should pay the slightly higher taxes of the Clinton administration. (The Republicans, who secretly want to increase inequality, countered that the Democrats want to “punish success.”) Neither candidate called for anything close to real progressive taxation and other measures required to undo the U.S.’s status as by far and away the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth top-heavy nation.
There was nothing from Obama this time around about the need to raise the minimum wage or to undertake significant federal jobs programs or to restore and enhance union organizing rights or to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to allow working class Americans to get back a share of what they’ve lost to the 1 percent over the last 4 decades. We heard nothing from either candidate about the real healthcare solution for working and middle class people: improved Medicare for All, single payer government health insurance for all Americans, including those under 65.
A darling of the financial sector, Romney advanced no criticism to how Obama loaded up his Administration with neoliberal Wall Street agents like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. The “challenger” had nothing to say about how the incumbent rushed to shield the nation’s top bankers from public criticism and then extended the $14 trillion bailout of the very financial institutions that crashed the national and global economy.
We heard no commentary from Romney about how the Obama administration did all this while offering no serious mortgage relief to millions of underwater homeowners and after turning down an offer from the departing Bush administration to make the major banks write down middle class mortgages as a condition for the rapid release of toxic asset relief funds (see Matt Stoller, “The Progressive Case Against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012). The supposed “Detroit” and “auto guy” Romney had nothing critical to say about how the Obama administration included giant bonus packages in its bailout payments to AIG executives (leading players in the toxic derivative mania that helped explode the economy in 2007 and 2008) in the name of “the sanctity of contracts” even as it turned around to demand that the United Auto Workers accept significant cuts in their contractually stipulated benefits as part of the federal auto bailout.
Romney offered no objection to Obama’s mild stimulus measure or to Obama’s insistence on passing a health reform with even a mild public health insurance option and left the full profit-making power of the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations intact.
Structural Unemployment/Surplus Americans: A sixth issue is the long-term structural employment and enforced obsolescence of tens of millions of formerly middle and working class Americans. It results from “the calculation by elites that they can make more profit by radically reducing reliance on U.S. workers and U.S. infrastructure, using instead foreign workers or replacing workers with robots or other new technology, while relying on infrastructure in other nations” (Charles Derber and Yale Magrass, The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making Us Redundant, Paradigm, 2012).
Arguing on the margins of the problem about the high official unemployment rate and who was responsible for it, neither of the campaigns came close to addressing this core structural problem in a substantive and honest fashion.
Racism Deeply Understood: Racism deeply understood remains firmly embedded in the U.S., where black median household wealth is equivalent to seven cents on the median white household wealth dollar, where black unemployment and poverty rates remain double those of whites, where blacks and Latinos together make up more than two-thirds of the country’s unmatched prison population, where one in three black male adults is saddled with the crippling mark of a felony record, and where millions of black children are stuck in highly segregated, inadequately funded, and standardized test score-obsessed schools.
The problem, more invisible than ever, is cloaked in part by the deadly notion that the predominantly white electorate’s willingness to elect a certain kind of black (“but-not-like-Jesse”) candidate to the White House four years ago proves that racism is over as a barrier to equality in the U.S. Neither official candidate raised a peep about racially disparate mass incarceration or segregated schools or black inner city neighborhoods with unemployment and poverty rates over 30 percent.
The Pentagon System: The Pentagon system accounts for nearly half the planet’s military expenditure and spends more than $1 trillion a year to maintain (among other things) more than 1,000 U.S. military installations across more than 100 nations while granting gigantic cost-plus taxpayer subsidies to filthy rich high-tech American corporations like Boeing, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins—not to mention the oil access and protection service it provides to Exxon Mobil. This giant expenditure comes at an enormous social opportunity cost, stealing taxpayer money required to meet a vast list of unmet social needs.
Romney accused Obama of weakening the nation’s “defenses” and of apologizing for American power. Obama talked about the need to end wars abroad and start “some nation-building at home.” Beneath these theatrics, however, both contenders engaged in the standard contest to outdo the other one in proclaiming “exceptional” America’s right to use military force wherever and whenever “necessary” and in trumpeting the inherent benevolence and democratic intention behind U.S. militarism. Romney offered no objection to Obama’s “kill list,” the president’s personally approved roster of alleged terrorists (including American-born targets) selected for execution without trial at the flick of a drone switch. The challenger had no objection to the incumbent’s drone war, which has killed hundreds of innocent children and placed much of Pakistan in a constant state of sleepless terror. Romney offered no criticism of Obama’s decision to commit U.S. forces to imperial war in Libya without seeking authorization from Congress—this in bold defiance of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. War Powers Act since the Libyan regime offered no real or imminent threat to Americans.
Many, if not all, of these eight issues were addressed in progressive ways by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Justice Party presidential candidate Rocky Anderson. But while these left candidates advanced positions that are popular among American citizens (garnering majority support in some cases), the U.S. election and party system and political culture are hostile to parties beyond the official duopoly who dare to question the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, patriarchy, white supremacy, and ecocide. Enabling such parties to become serious players in the nation’s political life would require fundamental changes in the nation’s voting and party systems, including full public financing of elections, proportional representation in Congress, free and multiparty televised debates, and more.
Nobody on the progressive left should doubt that the election of Mitt Romney would have been a catastrophe for ordinary people and livable ecology at home and abroad. Among the many terrible possibilities averted by Romney’s defeat, we must include the probability of a Republican president appointing one or two Supreme Court Justices likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. Still, the content and character of the 2012 U.S. presidential election does not bode well for the species. If the American people do not broaden the sphere of public concerns that matter, then there is not going to be a decent, desirable, or democratic future worth inhabiting.
Along with past episodes like the rise of the 20th century industrial workers and Civil Rights movements, more recent American history gives reason for hope. The Wisconsin and Ohio public workers’ rebellion and the rise of the Occupy Movement last year; the nationwide Justice for Trayvon (Martin) demonstrations; mass marches and demonstrations against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Chicago teachers strike, and the emergence of new labor activism at the U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart (S. Greenhouse, “Wal-Mart Labor Protests Grow,” New York Times, October 8, 2012) this year—all this and more shows that grassroots activists and ordinary and working Americans can act collectively to broaden the range of acceptable debate and the field of relevant politics.
Elected in the name of progressive change, the first Obama administration became a richly instructive tutorial on who really rules America (the wealthy corporate and financial few) beyond the charade of popular governance— and on the futility of seeking democratic transformation through the recurrent election of ruling class-backed major party candidates. We can expect Obama’s second term to continue the lesson. It will demonstrate further the wisdom of the late Howard Zinn’s argument that, “Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.” Z