Liberalism’s Death Rattle in Iowa: What a Difference Four Years Makes

Bloomington, IN, September 28, 2011. First published at ZNet

What a difference four years have made in Iowa. Around this time in 2007, the state’s Democratic base was all abuzz. With the long Cheney-Bush 43 nightmare drawing to a close, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were crisscrossing the state, posing before giant star-struck crowds as enemies of war and wealth and as friends of working people and the environment. Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and even Dodd were pounding their chests against criminal wars and tax cuts for the rich. Crazy John Edwards was electrifying town hall meetings with a fiery stump speech that excoriated the rich and powerful, highlighted poverty and inequality, and referred to the labor movement as “the greatest anti-poverty program in American history.”  Edwards warned about the dangers of “replacing a corporate Republican with a corporate Democrat” in the White House. He mocked as “singing Kumbaya” Obama’s “fantasy of achieving progressive change by sitting down at a big negotiating table with big business and Republicans.” Big business and the GOP will “eat everything served,” said Edwards, who argued that only an epic battle with concentrated economic power could ever bring such change about. 

Flash forward four years. Obama has justified Edwards’ warning ten times over. Even longtime left Obama skeptics like myself – a Chicago veteran of the state-level Obama prodigy who began exposing the future president as a fake-progressive corporatist-imperialist at the birth of the national Obama phenomenon (see my essay ““Keynote Reflections,” ZNet, July 29th, 2004 at – have been taken aback by the depth and degree of Barack O’Hoover’s willingness to serve the wealthy, advance the empire, and accommodate his supposed enemies on the right. Under Obama, as under George W. Bush, “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched,” as William Greider noted early on, “Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” 

The “right people” do not include the record-setting 46 million Americans who now “live” below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level – this as the New York Times reports that the rich and super rich have fully resumed their ways of conspicuous and opulent luxury consumption. “Even Marked Up,” a Times headline runs, “Luxury Goods Fly Off Shelves.”  Further: “Even with the economy in a funk and many Americans pulling back on spending, the rich are again buying designer clothing, luxury cars and about anything that catches their fancy. Luxury goods stores, which fared much worse than other retailers in the recession, are more than recovering — they are zooming. Many high-end businesses are even able to mark up, rather than discount, items to attract customers who equate quality with price.”

Welcome to American Empire & Inequality, Inc with a nominal Democrat in the executive office. Obama and his team of neoliberal corporatists have done nothing to avert the deepening disparities that rot what’s left of democracy in the U.S., where the top 10 percent owns two thirds of the nation’s net worth (and a probably higher percentage of its elected officials) and the bottom 40 percent owns 0.3 percent, essentially nothing, and where real unemployment hovers around 16 percent. Major green public works and transportation programs to employ masses of wasted Americans and help restore livable ecology? Advance of the forgotten Employee Free Choice Act to restore union organizing and collective bargaining rights for working class Americans? Renegotiation of NAFTA and other international trade agreements to include meaningful labor and environmental protections? Meaningful national health reform to cut the power of the dominant six insurance companies and the leading pharmaceutical corporations? Transfer of federal funds from the endless empire to the meeting of rising human needs at home and abroad? Nationalization of the nation’s parasitic financial institutions and the redirection of their resources to the creation of good jobs? Expansion of family public assistance and other forms of public welfare to even remotely match the scale of the continuing human recession (which lives on beneath mild and tenuous statistical recovery)?  Hello? 

Get serious. None of this has been remotely advanced by a “progressive” president who has bought into the basic reactionary narrative of the right: that the nation’s biggest problem is the deficit (not unemployment) and that the best way to cut that deficit is to slash social expenditures, not raise taxes on the ever more filthy rich. The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. The “new” White House escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America, and…. (I could go on. It’s a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.) Amidst all this and much, much more that could be mentioned in the way of progressive betrayal, the White House has repeatedly mocked and intimidated liberals and leftists who hoped (naively or not) for something less craven to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines.

If ever a sitting Democratic president deserved a challenge from the left of his party in the primary elections preceding his nomination for a second term, it is Barack Obama. But there’s nothing remotely close to that in the works – nothing except a mild effort on the part of a few Iowa liberals to elect “uncommitted delegates” to the Democratic convention. All the excited Caucus anger and energy in Iowa this time around is with the arch-plutocratic white nationalist Republicans, with their bizarre claims that corporate Democrats are totalitarian socialists and with their revolting drive to roll back American history to the McKinley administration. 

Obama staffers are now in the coffee shops of Iowa City, trying to get numbers for a party re-coronation of the Dalai O’Bomber on the first Tuesday of January 2012. Semi-depressed volunteers trickle in and sit down across from young centrist staffers. You can hear some of the volunteers expressing “disappointment” in their president and how he is “too willing to make deals” with the GOP and business. Clinging to the fantastic notion (which they share with many on the right) that the deeply conservative chief executive is really a left-leaning liberal, they seem to think these deals are contrary to Obama’s inner progressive essence. Some complain about how Obama’s supposed progressive aims are blocked by Republicans, ignoring the fact that Obama governed towards the corporate and imperial right when he had strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. 

The main theme in their comments is fear – fear of the terrible Tea Party, of Rick Perry, and of the GOP. Such is the lesser-evilist denouement of nearly three years of cringing, business-friendly right-centrist policy on the part of the politician who swept Iowa with dreamy hopes of “real [progressive] change” in the summer and fall of 2007. As usual, the left fears and the right hates.  

Maybe dread of the GOP will be enough to the get Obama a second term. If the doltish evangelical Rick Perry gets the Republican nomination it will boost the current White House incumbent’s chances. Who knows, maybe a Great Texas Tea Perry Fear would help the temporizing Wall Street tool Obama seem to spark the Democratic base to a degree that could put him over the top. Mitt Romney, not all that different from Obama in terms of policy and ideology, would stand a better chance of defeating the president. He would do a better job winning over Independents and keeping the Democratic vote depressed. 

It’s a difficult election to call and far too early to say anything definitive, of course. Much will depend on the performance of the economy – the job market above all – in the next twelve months. Still, it’s more than a little pathetic to behold this pale reflection of 2007 and of other past years of Caucus campaigning in Iowa – this distant death rattle of Democratic liberalism that is on such chilling display now in Iowa. 

Paul Street ( is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008, described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States”) and The Empire’s New Clothes:  Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street’s sixth book, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO Paradigm. 2011). Street will speak on (and sign copies of) Crashing the Tea Party at Peoples’ Books Cooperative in Milwaukee, WI (Thursday, September 29 at 7 pm), and Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City (Tuesday, October 4 at 7pm). Street can be reached at

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By | 2011-09-29T09:57:11+00:00 September 29th, 2011|Articles|