The Real Choice – A Response to Wandra Ashley-Williams

We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.

– Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1941 

“That’s Not Good” 

First published on ZNet on September 12, 2012. According to Yahoo News last Tuesday, 100 or so “Occupy” protestors “shouting ‘Obama is a traitor’ temporarily shut down official bus service that ferries around delegates at the Democratic National Convention” (DNC). The protesters, some of whom lay down in the street, were quickly surrounded by Charlotte cops, who “used their bicycles to build a barrier around the group,” a standard “kettling” procedure that metropolitan police now employ when un-permitted public assembly threatens to break out in city streets. 

“What do you think of free speech zones?” one protestor shouted at onlookers, referring to the official cordoned-off protest areas that federal and local authority created to render public assembly irrelevant. “Does that seem strange to you?”

Protesters also chanted for the freeing of the whistleblower Bradley Manning, the young soldier the Obama administration has imprisoned and tortured for allegedly providing U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.

According to Yahoo News reporter Liz Goodwin, delegates who had to wait for buses to be rerouted expressed “surprise that the Occupy presence has been stronger at the DNC than at the Republican convention in Tampa last week.”

“I didn’t see them at the Republican convention,” Wandra Ashley-Williams, vice president of the Maryland State Conference NAACP, told Goodwin.

That’s not good,” Ashley-Williams added.[1]

Tamped-Down Tampa

But if the DNC did in fact attract and confront more Occupy and/or other left protestors than the RNC (it’s hard to know given the standard media blackout of left protest), there should be little mystery about why. Predictions of a major hurricane significantly cut into the numbers of protestors willing to travel to Tampa and bus companies willing to deliver them there. The protest-unfriendly nature of Tampa’s downtown didn’t help. “Few people live there and many businesses told their workers to stay away during the convention, leaving the streets nearly empty,” Associated Press reporter Mike Schneider noted. “We could protest until we’re blue in the face but there weren’t people normally around to see that,” one Occupy Wall Street veteran told Schneider. “Whether it was intelligent design or they were just fortunate,” the activist added,” it worked out for the RNC.” Also tending to suppress turnout was an overwhelming militarized police presence – replete with packs of officers on every corner and surveillance helicopters in the sky – in and around the RNC site and the open infiltration of the local protest movement by undercover officers posing as activists.[2]

Ozbama’s Betrayal

At the same time, if Wandra Ashley-Williams is interested in things that are “not good,” she might want to think a bit about why the Occupy protestors she saw called the president “a traitor.” The term strikes me as overwrought but unsurprising and understandable. The Occupiers  didn’t mean it in the preposterous and paranoid, white-nationalist Tea Party sense associated with the right-wing charge that Obama is an un- , anti- (and indeed literally non-) American “Muslim” and “socialist,” of course. They meant it the sense that Obama has betrayed hopes for democratic change he sold on his way to the oval office. The White House has been occupied by a Democrat, Barack Obama, not a Republican, for the last three plus years – a Democrat who has behaved in bold defiance of the progressive-sounding campaign promises he made to younger and progressive popular constituencies in 2007 and 2008.

Many among the pioneer Occupiers were once expectant Obama supporters.[3] They sought to play by the rules of the American game, working hard, going to school, taking college student loans, and voting for Hope and Change in big candidate-centered elections only to find themselves lost in a financial and economic tornado of debt and weak or non-existent employment chances in a time of epic recession. They landed on the stage of history on the heads of the great eastern financial barons in Manhattan’s financial district (Zucotti Park)  Their arrival was  applauded by millions of working and middle class Americans who might not have been able  to occupy but who felt enslaved by the wealth and power of the parasitic investor and creditor class, which crashed the economy, mired the nation in toxic debt, and convinced the politicians they owned to bail them out with the taxpayers’ money as a record-setting 46 million Americans now lived (and died) below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and as fully half the population fell into near-poor “low income” status.[4]  

Three years before,  many of the Occupiers had helped the seemingly great and powerful Wizard Ozbama slay the Wicked Republican Party Witch on his Gold(man Sachs)- paved path to the Emerald City’s top job. They did so in the name of progressive ”change from the bottom up,” – a slogan that Obama mouthed more than once in 2007 and 2008. They sought an undoing of the usual cash-drenched rules of the game imposed by the hidden senate of wealth and the endless military empire. They were struck by the buoyant youth and charisma of the new wizard-in-waiting and proud to elect the nation’s first non-white president – an African American with a technically Muslim name to boot.[5] 

What did they get for their votes and electoral activism? What did the slick, handsome, silver-tongued Ozbama give them as a reward for their efforts? Nothing, or next to it, behind the smoke and mirrors. Words, not deeds: “the language of helping us…the language of solving the problem,” un-backed, Cowardly Lion-style, by “real answers” and actions. Consistent with arch-“conciliator”[6] Obama’s longstanding fake-pragmatist, pseudo-progressive “business liberalism,”[7] the “Obama, Inc.”[8] administration quickly proved to be a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same).

The Class One Serves

 “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House,” the left commentator John Pilger noted in June of 2009, “is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters above all, is the class one serves [emphasis added].”[9]  As Frantz Fanon argued 60 years ago in his book Black Skin, White Masks (1962), “What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”

FOX News-informed Teapublicans might have mouthed paranoid, neo-McCarthyite fantasies about the new president’s “socialism” and “Marxism” (even in some cases “Marxism-Lenninism”). But serious investigators had little reason to doubt which class the new president served. “Our black president,” as progressive editor and commentator Matthew Rothschild (no Obama fan) called Obama in October of 2010, had in fact belonged to Wall Street and corporate America from the start, making his first year in the White House a case study in the triumph of corporate-imperial conservatism. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling and other offshore drilling projects its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (recall the quickly sidetracked Employee Free Choice Act) its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed [in economist Michael Hudson’s words] by avowed enemies of Social Security” (Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskin Bowles), its refusal to embrace the epic winter-spring 2011 public worker rebellion in Wisconsin, and wither other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), and Obama’s “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency epitomized the power of what the radical critics Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call the unelected dictatorship of money.”[10]

Not good.

 “It Became Clear That Our Political System Failed”

More than merely a “blunt lesson about power,”[11] the Obama administration has been a veritable seminar in who actually governs the country beneath and beyond staggered, mass-marketed and candidate-centered election spectacles and on the futility of seeking progressive change through the dominant electoral and major party modes. The real rulers, the Obama experience taught, were the rich and powerful Few, those whom Occupy Wall Street so famously designated as “the 1%” last year around this time. That’s no small part of how and why Occupy happened when it did, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz notes:   

“That the young would rise up against the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt was understandable. The youth were tired of aging, sclerotic leaders who protected their own interests at the expense of the rest of society. They had no opportunity to call for change through democratic processes. But electoral democracy had also failed badly in Western democracies. U.S. president Barack Obama had promised “change you can believe in,” but he subsequently delivered economic policies that, to many Americans, seemed like more of the same….One interpretation of the long delay in arrival of mass protests was that, in the aftermath of the crisis, there was hope in democracy, faith that the political system would work, that it would hold accountable those who had brought on the crisis and quickly repair the economic system. But years after the breaking of the bubble, it became clear that our political system had failed. Just as it had failed to prevent the crisis, to check the growing inequality, to protect those at the bottom, to prevent the corporate abuses. It was only then that protestors turned to the streets…..’[12] 

‘… One interpretation for why it took so long for the Occupy Wall Street protests to emerge was that many hoped that the political process would “work” to rein in the financial sector and redress the country’s economic problems. It was only when it was evident that they did not that protests became widespread. The strong voter turnout in 2008 (the highest since 1968) reflects the power of hope.’[13]

Hope of a particularly electoral kind, that is. The Obama experience taught many thousands of young Americans to pursue their hope for “change from, the bottom up” – a recurrent Obama campaign mantra in 2007 and 2008 – through action of a different kind, consistent with Noam Chomsky’s instructive reflections on the eve of another close presidential election 8 years ago: ‘A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.”  But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive directions – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power…  In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.’[14] 

Three Episodes

“The Sanctity of Contracts”

Anyone who doubts the “change” administration’s captivity to Wall Street would do well to recall three critical episodes in the early Obama presidency’s first year. In the spring of 2009, Stiglitz notes, “an Obama administration official could say, with a straight face, that it was necessary to honor AIG bonuses, even for the officials who had led the company to need a $150 billion bailout, because of the sanctity of contracts; minutes later [that same official] could admonish autoworkers to accept a revision of their contract that would have lowered their compensation enormously.”[15] 

Thanks to its heavy and central involvement in the crafting and marketing of complex financial and housing derivatives, AIG‘s top managers were as responsible as any members of the 1% for the financial meltdown and subsequent economic collapse. Nonetheless, and despite widespread popular outrage and negative media attention, those managers were permitted to receive their giant but “contractually obliged” so-called performance bonuses as part of the massive taxpayer bailout the White House extended to AIG as part of its effort to “stabilize the economy.” 

At the same time, the White House insisted that workers enrolled in the UAW give up significant contractually set wages and benefits as part of the administration’s bailout and takeover of General Motors and Chrysler – a little fact that is never mentioned in the Obama campaign’s constant reference to “saving the automobile industry,” repeated over and over again (along with the supposedly noble, in fact monumentally illegal  revenge-killing and ocean-dumping of Osama bin-Laden last year) during the DNC.

Not good, Ms. Ashley-Williams.

“He Wanted to Help Us Quell the Mob”

A second episode suggests how even the financial elite itself was somewhat surprised at the extent to which president Obama was determined to shield them from citizen rage. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s supposedly “transformative” presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

Not good.

To McCain’s Right on Mortgage Relief

The third episode is ongoing. It reflects the administration’s refusal and failure to offer significant mortgage relief to millions of foreclosed and “underwater” households. The contrast has been quite stark with the trillions of taxpayer dollars and the political protection the White House offered to the very financial elites who recklessly inflated and then crashed the housing market, precipitating the greatest U.S. economic crisis since the 1930s. As millions were pushed underwater and foreclosed  through no fault of their own, Obama refused to spend significant funds that Congress has already made available for the federal purchase of mortgages and followed a cautious path that stood well to the right of what his Republican presidential opponent had called in regard to housing policy. As the New York Times reported last summer:

‘After inheriting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, President Obama poured vast amounts of money into efforts to stabilize the financial system, rescue the auto industry, and revive the economy…But he tried to finesse the cleaning up of the housing crash, rejecting…proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program – and a [bad] bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest….During his first two years in office, Mr. Obama and his advisers….[left] unspent hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress had allocated to buy mortgage loans, even as millions of people lost their homes and the economic recovery stalled somewhere between crisis and prosperity…“They were not aggressive in taking the steps that could have been taken,” said Representative Zoe Lofren, chairwoman of the California Democratic caucus…..Mr. Obama insisted that that government should help only “responsible borrowers,” and his administration offered aid to fewer than half of those facing foreclosure…He  decided to rely on mortgage companies to modify unaffordable loans rather than have the government take control by purchasing the loans, the approach advocated by his chief rivals in the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain…The administration did not push for legislation to make mortgage companies help borrowers. The financial incentives it offered were often insufficient. And it responded slowly to warnings, including those homeowners sent to Mr. Obama, that companies were not cooperating ‘(emphasis added).[16] 

Not good. 

“We’re in This Together”? 

All of that and much more that could be mentioned here [17] makes it hard to listen to Obama trumpet himself as the greater defender of the people against the wealthy few. In the current mass-marketed, candidate-centered major party passion play that pits the deeply conservative[18] state-capitalist mediocrity Barack Obama against the deeply reactionary state-capitalist mediocrity Mitt Romney, the Democrats and much of the corporate media seem to expect us to throw the actual record of the administration down Orwell’s memory hole. Obama is sold as the regular guy who thinks that “we’re all in this together” going up against “Mr. 1%” (really .001%) Mitt Romney’s notion that “everyone is on their own.”   

Obama was given a critical boost in that marketing project by the “master triangulator” William Jefferson (Bill)  Clinton,[19] whose mesmerizing DNC speech was dedicated to explaining the difference in “vision” between supposedly virtuous community-centered Democrats and the nasty and selfish Republicans. Never mind the current president’s service to “the 1%,” [20] rewarded with a stunning lack of gratitude from Wall Street election investors who have turned to Romney.[21] 

And never mind how the corporatist Clinton administration  served Wall Street and helped pave the way for the financial crisis and the recent explosion of American poverty by de-regulating financial markets, ending the family public cash assistance entitlement (“welfare reform”), and expanding the racist mass arrest and incarceration state.[22] A front-page New York Times article last April detailed some of the terrible consequences of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s “welfare reform” – a striking assault on the poor that Obama and other elites regularly trumpet as a noble and bipartisan policy triumph. Times’ reporter Jason DeParle noted that the nation’s family cash assistance program has been shockingly restricted in its capacity to respond to the drastic increase in poverty that followed the epic recession that began in 2007. “Even with $5 billion in new federal funds, caseloads rose just 15 percent from the lowest level in two generations,” DeParle wrote. “Compared with the 1990s peak, the national welfare rolls are still down by 68 percent. Just one in five poor children now receive cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years [emphasis added].” [23] DeParle could have added that the intensity of the latest recession, which has done so much to expose the viciousness of the bipartisan “welfare reform,” resulted at least in part from the financial deregulation the Clinton administration undertook at the behest of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other elite Wall Street firms. 

Wandra Ashley-Williams’ hero Barack Obama has understandably “said little about” the tragic increase in “homeland’ misery that resulted from the 2-punch bipartisan and neoliberal combination of financial de-regulation and “welfare reform” during his presidency. Extreme poverty skyrocketed to its highest recorded level[24] without eliciting remotely adequate government assistance to its victims while the administration provided record-setting taxpayer assistance to the very financial institutions that crashed the national and global economy. 

This is fascinating historical background for Clinton’s heralded line at last week’s DNC: “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was pretty simple: we left him a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”[25] 

 The deeper, unmentionable truth is that the neoliberal polices that have loosened financial regulation, undercut social protections, deepened economic inequality, and produced crisis have been a richly bipartisan affair going back to the Jimmy Carter administration.[26] The mess Obama inherited was richly bipartisan in its creation and Clinton played no small role in creating it. But partisan calculations dictated that Clinton and other DNC speakers blame the epic economic crisis that Obama inherited entirely on the Republicans.[27] 

Areas of Agreement 

In a recent Black Agenda Report column the left activist and commentator Bruce Dixon uncovered no less than 15 critical political and policy matters on which Obama and Romney basically agree behind the official media story line of an epic contest between two “very different” and indeed “sharply polarized” parties and candidates. Dixon’s list includes the following: 

  • ‘The federal government should NOT enact any sort of WPA-style program to put millions of people back to work.’
  • ‘Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are “entitlements” that need to be cut to relieve “the deficit.”’
  • ‘Climate change treaties and negotiations that might lead to them should be avoided at all costs.’
  • The corporatist investor-rights North American Free Trade Agreement is ‘such a great thing it really should be extended to Central and South America and the entire Pacific rim.’
  • ‘Banksters and Wall Street speculators deserve their bailouts and protection from criminal liability, but underwater and foreclosed homeowners deserve nothing.’
  • Racist imperialism should march on in the Middle East: ‘Palestinians should be occupied, dispossessed and ignored. Iran should be starved and threatened from all sides…. Cuba should be embargoed…. Black and brown babies and their parents, relatives and neighbors should be bombed with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and similar places.’
  • Racist imperialism must march on in Africa: ‘Africa should be militarized, destabilized, plundered and where necessary, invaded by proxy armies like those of Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi or Kenya, or directly by Western air and ground forces, as in Libya’
  • ‘US Presidents can kidnap citizens of their own or any nation on earth from anyplace on the planet for torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial or murder them and neighboring family and bystanders at will’
  • ‘Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve “energy independence”.’
  • ‘The FCC should not and must not regulate telecoms to ensure that poor and rural communities have access to internet, or to guarantee network neutrality.’
  • ‘There really ARE such things as “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy.”’
  • ‘Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve “energy independence.”’
  • ‘Immigrants must be jailed and deported in record numbers.’
  • ‘No Medicare for All. Forget about it eliminating the Medicare age requirement so that all Americans would qualify.’
  • ‘No minimum wage increases for you, no right to form a union, no right to negotiate or strike if you already have a union, and no enforcement or reform of existing labor laws.’
  • ‘The 40 year war on drugs must continue…mention of the prison state is unthinkable.’[28]

Not good, Ms. Ashley-Williams. 

The parties and candidate are not completely identical or indistinguishable,[29] but Dixon has provided an impressive and chilling list of common ground between the two dominant political organizations. 

It’s been like this for many election cycles now, which is no small part of why many U.S. voters’ candidate “choices” end up having nothing or little to do with policy. With the contests all-too drained of substantive policy meaning, voters commonly select the candidate who seems most “likeable” to them, the one with whom they’d most like to have a beer or watch television. The infantilization of the electorate along these lines is encouraged by campaign advertisements that sell candidates like a new brand of deodorant[30] and media commentary that focuses on things like Obama’s lithe athleticism or the physically awkward Romney’s real or alleged “wimpiness.” 

Not good. 

Race “Neutrality” 

What about the fact that Obama is black? Is it historic that an African-American family has lived in the White House for nearly four years in the land of chattel slavery? No doubt. Has this remarkable fact transformed American “race relations” to any significant degree? Not really. Having black conservatives Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condolleeza Rice as top National Security Advisor, and Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice under George W. Bush did not change the underlying reality of racial inequality in the U.S. and neither did electing Obama to the top job.  Nor did it alter the deeply reactionary nature of the Bush administration! 

Racism and white supremacy are very deeply entrenched in U.S. institutional and cultural life. Anyone who thinks that to put a conservative, militantly “race-neutral,” and half-white black politician into the White House is to seriously confront white racism in the U.S. has a superficial understanding of racial oppression in this country.

In some ways, indeed, Barack Obama’s election and administration seems to have worsened the nation’s racial problems. The ascendancy of Obama has been seen by many whites as proof positive that the only meaningful remaining barriers to black advancement and equality in the U.S. are internal to “black culture” and the black community itself. Along with other widely white-heralded “race neutral” black American elites like Oprah Winfrery and Colin Powell, Obama has been widely perceived as an epitome of the cultural-Darwinian thesis – as the “good” “guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner” black whose internalization of respectable white values and behavioral codes leads to success that demonstrates that a “color blind” America has answered the call for racial equality of opportunity and that impoverished “ghetto blacks” are victims of their own “bad choices” and “bad culture.” It is a narrative that Obama has been unwilling to remotely question and more than happy to exploit to his advantage with the majority white racism-denying electorate. As the astute black left commentator Glen Ford recently noted on Black Agenda Report:

‘a clear white consensus favors ‘race neutral’ government policies – which, in practice, reject Black grievances based on past discrimination and disadvantage, and set an extremely high bar for complaints of current bias. Such dismissal of essential – and irrefutable – contemporary and historical data can only be rooted in a general white belief that African American culture is what holds Blacks back. Barack Obama either shares this white attitude, or pretends he does for political gain. His singling out of ‘irresponsible’ Black fathers and hectoring of Black parents for feeding their kids Popeye’s chicken for breakfast was a shout-out to white folks that he shared their assessment of Black “culture.” ’ [31]

It goes back a long way in Obama’s career.[32] Before and since his election to the presidency, Obama has repeatedly criticized blacks for failing to think and act right and thereby to take advantage of the great opportunities supposedly afforded them by the “magical place called the United States.”  He has distanced himself from the supposedly “dysfunctional” and obsolete notion that white supremacy and societal racism continue to oppress black Americans. Claiming that “a rising tide will lift all boats” and explicitly denying the need to address the specific needs of blacks, he has refused to advance any policies that might specially address harsh racial disparities resulting from racist realities – this even as already terrible black poverty, joblessness, foreclosure, homelessness, and abuse-by-police numbers have significantly worsened during his administration. A cheerleader[33] for Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton’s neoliberal-racist elimination of poor families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance – an eradication that was repeatedly applauded and celebrated at the 2012 DNC – Obama chides blacks for supposed personal and cultural failure but has nothing to say about the Caucasian culture of white supremacy that creates a living (if dangerously cloaked) reality of anti-black racial oppression in the contemporary U.S.[34]

Accordingly, the nation’s first black president has nothing to say about the savage disproportionate increase of black poverty and joblessness to Great Depression levels under his presidency or about the persistence of the racist drug war and mass incarceration stop-frisk-jail-and shoot state that brands 1 in 3 black males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record[35] and has produced an epidemic of white-on-black police killings this year.[36] He remains silent on the epic destruction of black net worth in the housing crisis and on the current downward spiral of black life in violence-torn Chicago, his supposed home town – a monument to savage racial inequality that he tried to sell as a friendly collection of happy little color-blind neighborhoods in his failed bid for that city to host the 2016 Olympics.[37]

Race aside, the convention that just nominated Obama and other leading Democratic speakers at the DNC remained remarkably mute on questions of poverty, joblessness, and inequality for people of any and all colors. Partisan calculations required that the first two problems (the last one went unmentioned at both conventions) ironically received more attention at the convention of the presidential out-party – the militantly plutocratic G.O.P.

Not good, Ms. Ashley-Williams.

NAACP founder .W.E.B. DuBois – a harsh critic of the racial accomodationism preached by black self-help champion Booker T. Washington – would not be impressed. 

The Real Choice 

Captive to and controlled by corporate, financial and professional elites, the current quadrennial election spectacle swallows up nearly all the official news and commentary nearly a year after Occupy arose. Specializing in “the manipulation of populism by elitism” that a still left Christopher Hitchens cleverly described as “the essence of American politics,”[38] it functions among other things to obliterate serious discussion of the deadly underlying profits system and its many terrible consequences, which include the turning of “our democratic process” into an empty, money-soaked charade. 

On October 6, the “Public” Broadcasting System’s FRONTLINE reporters will broadcast a show purporting to “present the definitive portraits of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.”  The show will be titled “The Choice.”[39]  

But Americans need to pick from options that go deeper than one more staggered, once-every-1460-days contest between two elite-sponsored state-capitalist politicians. “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted more than six decades ago, “or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” [40] 

That is the real choice for serious citizens beneath and beyond the much ballyhooed choice offered between two candidates selected for us in advance by the powers that be. Acting on that choice involves in a seriously democratic fashion is not a simple or easy matter. It involves difficult and detailed, movement-building work each and every day, not just once very four years. As Zinn explained in an essay on the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Obama’s election.

Democracy versus the concentration of wealth – that is the choice that Occupy Wall Street was trying to focus Americans on last fall, before the great authoritarian sucking sound of the latest presidential electoral spectacle became the official ubiquitous leading news story. It’s not for nothing that the Obama administration worked with Democratic mayors and militarized urban police to help coordinate the often brutal armed force dismantlement of Occupy encampment across the country last fall.[41] 

The latest and current “election frenzy”[42] will recede like a bad hangover. It always does. As the dull crush of corporate, financial, military and professional class rule sinks back into popular consciousness the time will be ripe again for popular mobilization. Voting or sitting out however they wish (the “election 2012” decision is more complicated if one lives in a contested state[43]), serious citizens will take Occupy’s cue by staying focused on an underlying contest beyond highly staggered and staged big money-big media-narrow-spectrum elections:  the conflict between democracy and the authoritarian and “the 1%’s” exterminist[44] profits system, dedicated to the ceaseless accumulation of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands. 

Paul Street ( is the author of numerous books, including most recently, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party (2011). Street can be reached at 

Selected Endnotes

 [1] Liz Goodwin, “Occupy Protestors Block DNC Buses,” Yahoo News (September 4, 2012).

[2] I assume similar militarized policing was on display in Charlotte, of course.

[3] Marjorie Connely. “Occupy Protestors Down On Obama, Survey Finds,” New York Times, October 28, 2011. A survey of OWS protestors in New York City’s Zucotti Park by Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos and a team of 15 interviewers found that many of the activists were “disgruntled Democrats.” Sixty percent of those surveyed said they voted for Obama in 2008, and about three-quarters now disapproved of Mr. Obama’s presidential performance. 

[4] CBS News, “Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income,” December 15, 2011 6:25 AM at 

[5] For elaboration on the Wizard of Oz analogy here, see Paul Street, “Dorothy the Occupiers vs. The Wizard of Ozbama and the Power Behind the Curtain,” ZNet (November 5, 2011) at 

[6]  Larrisa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?, The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

[7]  Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow It Again,” Harper’s (July 2009). Like the Republican U.S. president Herbert Hoover (1929–1933), “Just  as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the ‘business progressivism’ of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, “ Baker noted, “so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton’s ‘business liberalism’ as an alternative to useless battles from another time—battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose….Clinton’s business liberalism, however, is a chimera, every bit as much a capitulation to powerful and selfish interests as was Hoover’s 1920s progressivism. [It] espous[es] a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests [emphasis added]. The common thread running through all of Obama’s major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict [with big business].Barack Obama is moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster.” 

[8] Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006). 

[9] John Pilger, “Obama and Empire,” speech to International Socialist Organization, San Francisco, CA (July 4, 2009). View and hear the segment quoted at   “George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history,” Pilger noted.“.It was PC par excellence….It was also the most reactionary.” 

[10] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009; Paul Street, “Whose Black President? Getting Things Done for the Rich and Powerful,” Counterpunch (July 30, 2012) at Even Ron Paul has had to admit that “Obama is a corporatist, not a socialist.” 

[11] “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.” William Greider, “Obama Told Us to Speak Out, But Is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009, B1.

[12] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York:  W.W. Norton, 2012), x, xix.

[13] Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 345, n.4. 

[14] Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City, Lights, 2007), 99-100. 

[15] Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 67. 

[16] Binyam Appelbaum, “Cautious Moves on Foreclosures Haunting Obama,” New York Times, August 20, 2012, A1, A11. 

[17]  Space does not permit anything like a full inventory of the president’s service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. My attempt to document the first year of this service ran to book length – see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). 

[18] “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.” MaqFarquhar, “The Conciliator.” 

[19] “Clinton….was always a master triangulator, able to strike a balance between mildly populist campaign rhetoric and a set of policy prescriptions that were largely unthreatening to the business community.” Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 231. 

[20] Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, Chapter 1: “Business Rule as Usual;” Street, “Whose Black President?”; Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011). 

[21] On September 8, 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics “Open Secrets” Website reported that Romney had raised $29,587, 891 from the Finance, Real Estate, and Insurance (FIRE) sector, including $11,458,384 from the Securities and Investment industry. Obama, by contrast, had raised $12,179, 522 from FIRE and $4,175, 867 from Securities and Investment. Romney’s top five contributors were Goldman Sachs ($676,080), JP Morgan Chase&Co. ($520,299), Morgan Stanley ($513.647), Bank of America ($510,728), and Credit Suisse Group ($427,580). Obama’s top five: University of California ($491,868), Microsoft ($443,748), Google (357,382), DLA Piper, Harvard University. Center for Responsive Politics, “2012 Presidential Race,” at and “Presidential 2012, Selected Industry Totals” at 

[22] Robert Pollin Contours of Decent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003), 3-76, 181 (see 31-32 and 181 on financial deregulation);  Elaine Brown, The Condemnation of Little B  (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002), 176-196;  Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), 413-430; Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, 223-252. 

[23] Jason DeParle “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” New York Times, April 7, 2012. 

[24] Ashley Portero, “U.S. Poverty Data: 1 in 15 Live in Extreme Poverty – a Record,” International Business Times (November 4, 2011) at

 25] Mark Barabak, “Bill Clinton Takes Stage to Formally Re-nominate Obama,” Los Angeles Times (September 5, 2012) at,0,4264467.story. See and hear Clinton’s speech at 

[26] Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, 95-100. 

[27]At the same time, the shared capitalist world views and captivity of both of the dominant parties forbids either from mentioning the basic fact that the profits system moves through periods of boom and bust just as people move through sleep and wakefulness. For an excellent discussion of capitalism’s inherent crisis tendencies and the 2007-08 crash, see David McNally: Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, 2011), 13-112. Also useful on capitalism’s inherent tendencies towards recurrent crisis and collapse is Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009). On crisis tendencies, 55-85. 

[28] Bruce Dixon, “Closer Than You Think: the Top 15 Things Romney and Obama Agree On,” Black Agenda Report (August 29, 2012) at Dixon elaborates on the false assumptions behind these shared positions and on  how most of what passes for differences between the two parties on these issue amount to contrasts of style, not substance. 

[29] One difference among others (the most obvious ones surround reproductive rights) that should not be dismissed as irrelevant comes on Medicaid – Obama and the Democrats would expand it and the Republicans would cut it significantly. See Abby Goodnough, “2 Campaigns Differ Sharply on Medicaid, Seeking Vast Growth or Sharp Cuts,” New York Times, August 31, 2012. Except for a key reference by Bill Clinton at the DNC last week, interestingly enough, Democrats have said relatively little about their different position on Medicaid, focusing instead on Republican threats (quite real) to Medicare. This is “because the elderly are considered a more engaged and influential voting group than the poor” (Goodnough).. Terribly enough, Obama’s proposed expansion of Medicaid is joined at the hip to a health care “reform” that further entrenches the nation’s health care crisis by leaving the leading insurance and drug companies in profit-taking control. 

[30] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 126-132; Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 220-223; Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, 1-2. 

[31] Glen Ford, “Romney and the Culture of White Supremacy,” Black Agenda Report (August 1, 2012), read at

[32] See Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, “Chapter 3: How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation, and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era.” 

[33] DeParle “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift.” 

[34] Paul Street, “Romney, Obama and the Darwinism That Substitutes Culture for Genes,” Black Agenda Report (August 8, 2012) at

 [35] Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002), read online at; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). Then state Senator Barack Obama gave the Keynote Address at the conference during which the first study was made public. 

[36] Paul Street, “Killer Cops and the War on Black America,” Black Agenda Report (August 15, 2012) at 

[37] The president’s racial-denialist Olympics sales job is a rarely noted story. I tried to tell it in Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 103-104. 

[38] “The Kingfish [Huey Long] had a primal understanding of the essence of American politics. That essence, when distilled, consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens wrote in 1999, “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’s 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.” Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18. 


 [40] Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941. 

[41] David Lindorff, “Police State Tactics Point to a Coordinated National Program to Try and Unoccupy Wall Street and Other Cities,” This Can’t Be Happening (November 15, 2011) at;  Andy Kroll, “Mayors and Cops Traded Strategies for Dealing with Occupy Protestors,” Mother Jones (November 16, 2011), read at;;  Nigel Duara, “Mayors, Police Chiefs Talk Strategy on Protests,” Associated Press (November 15, 2011) at For descriptions of chilling police-state crackdowns on the Occupy Movement: Dennis Bernstein, “What The Cops Really Did in Oakland,” Counterpunch (November 2, 2011) at; Yves Smith, “Police State: #OWS, Other Crackdowns Part of National, Coordinated Effort,” Naked Capitalism (November 15, 2011) at; Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, “Obama Silent, Bloomberg Wrong on Constitutional Rights,” Black Agenda Report (November 22, 2011);Ken Layne, “ “Four More Years:: Obama Raises Money In San Francisco As Cops Gas Oakland Protesters,” Wonkette (October 26, 2011) at]; 

[42] “The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us…… Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.” Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008). 

[43] Writing of the Republican Party four years ago (in an important left-liberal critique of the U.S. political order that did not spare the Democrats), political scientist Sheldon Wolin observed that “It is hard to imagine any power more radical [than the G.O.P.] in its determination to undo the gains of the past century.” Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008), 206. That judgment is no less relevant four years later. Nobody, probably not even Mitt Romney, knows if Romney actually means what he says on the campaign trail. But if the Republicans complete their takeover of Congress – a distinct possibility – next November, a President Romney would face overriding pressure to do what he says. Here’s some of  what Romney has claimed he would do as president: immediately okay the disastrous Keystone Pipeline; end federal tax supports for wind power; further escalate fracking and offshore drilling; let states re-criminalize abortion; seek a constitutional amendment outlawing new same-sex marriages; seek a constitutional amendment requiring two-third congressional majorities for tax increases; replace unemployment benefits with unemployment “savings accounts;” “double Guantanamo;” officially re-authorize torture; deport undocumented aliens en mass; start a new Cold War with “our main strategic enemy” nuclear Russia; significantly deepen inequality with further giant tax cuts for the wealthy few; further gut financial regulations; further cut Food Stamps, Medicaid and what’s left of public family cash assistance. Romney’s selection of “Tea Party” favorite Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate amounts to a de facto endorsement of Ryan’s plans to voucher-ize Medicare and to thoroughly bankrupt what’s left of the government’s capacity for social expenditure – this while acting to significantly increase the upward distribution of wealth and income. 

[44] Paul Street, “Less Than Zero: the 1 Percent and the Fate of the Earth,” ZNet. (December 9, 2011) at

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By | 2012-09-23T16:16:44+00:00 September 23rd, 2012|Articles|