The Real Polarization and the Manipulation of Populism

First published on ZNet on April 11, 2012

There has not been some massive expansion of social programs, programs that help the poor, environmental programs, education programs. That’s not our problem.

— Barack Obama, comments to the Associated Press, Washington D.C., April 3, 2012 

The late, formerly left political provocateur Christopher Hitchens earned disgrace among progressives by embracing George W. Bush’s petro-imperialist war of terror after 9/11, but he deserves credit for penning a pithy and perceptive paragraph on the plutocratic farce that passes for democratic politics in the United States. As Hitchens explained in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton presidency, “The essence of American politics [is] the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Further: 

“…That elite is most successful 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.” Its 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.”[1]  

 “The Ever-Widening Chasm Between the Ultra-Rich and Everyone Else” 

In the latest among many episodes in which he has acted in almost perfect accord with Hitchens’ formulation,  Barack Obama recently played the “putting people first” card in what Talking Points Memo “called the fieriest speech of his presidency” last week. Posing before the annual Associated Press (AP) luncheon as a champion of ordinary working people, the president lit into the Republican Party’s regressive plan for the county as outlined in House Majority Leader Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal and in the presidential campaign of the multibillionaire Mitt Romney. Obama decried the Republican vision of a society in which “a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by” and “there’s an ever-widening chasm between the ultra-rich and everybody else.”  Against the Republicans’ claim “that when [by Obama’s paraphrase] the wealthy become even wealthier,…their success will automatically translate into more jobs and prosperity for everybody else,” Obama observed that “the income of the top 1 percent has grown by more than 275 percent…to more than $1.3 million a year” with no positive results for the rest of the country over the last three decades of trickle-down economics.[2]  

 It’s no accident that Obama chose to hook his portrait of disparity off the top hundredth rather than, say, the top tenth or the top thousandth: “The top 1 percent” is (for better or worse[3]) the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose populist energy he and other leading Democrats are working to co-opt for electoral purposes ever after the administration helped Democratic Mayors across the nation dismantled Occupy encampments with brute military-policing force from coast to coast. 

“That’s Not Our Problem”

Never mind that Obama’s presidency has deeply furthered the very upward distribution of wealth the president claims to dislike, consistent with the record-setting campaign contributions he received from leading financial firms and the staffing of his administration’s key economic positions with top Wall Street elites like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Forget the “change” administration’s record-setting transfer of taxpayer dollars to the very financial behemoths that crashed the American and global economy – unaccompanied by any remotely comparable program for the many millions of Americans struggling to get by in the wake of the catastrophe and inequality imposed by the Few. 

Consistent with that depressing record, Obama’s remarks to the AP contained the required “‘reserve’ tag[s] that earmark[ed him]… for the bankrollers and backers” of national politics. Early in  his AP address, the president made yet another of his many statements to date of his longstanding vacuous, idiotic, and neoliberal, power-serving faith in “the free market” and self-help[4] and of his related bourgeois skepticism about the positive role government can play: 

“Keep in mind, I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem. Some of you know my first job in Chicago was working with a group of Catholic churches that often did more good for the people in their communities than any government program could. In those same communities I saw that no education policy, however well crafted, can take the place of a parent’s love and attention.”  

“As President, I’ve eliminated dozens of programs that weren’t working, and announced over 500 regulatory reforms that will save businesses and taxpayers billions, and put annual domestic spending on a path to become the smallest share of the economy since Dwight Eisenhower held this office — since before I was born. I know that the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington….So I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. My mother and the grandparents who raised me instilled the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility that remain the cornerstone of the American idea.”[5]  

Just in case this statement (in which the president Sean Hannity calls “a Marxist-Lenninist” wishes to be applauded for outdoing the Republican Eisenhower when it comes to reducing domestic expenditures) didn’t do enough to demonstrate his safety for the rich and powerful, Obama used the Q and A session after his AP speech to remind reporters that “the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions. What’s changed is the center of the Republican Party.”  Obama proudly cited his thoroughly  bourgeois/capitalist health reform and cap and trade policies, noting that both of them were first dreamed up by the rightmost of the two business parities to advance “market” (it would be more accurate to say corporate and financial) over government  “solutions”: 

“Cap and trade was originally proposed by conservatives and Republicans as a market-based solution to solving environmental problems. The first President to talk about cap and trade was George H.W. Bush. Now you’ve got the other party essentially saying we shouldn’t even be thinking about environmental protection; let’s gut the EPA…Health care, which is in the news right now — there’s a reason why there’s a little bit of confusion in the Republican primary about health care and the individual mandate since it originated as a conservative idea to preserve the private marketplace in health care while still assuring that everybody got covered, in contrast to a single-payer plan. Now, suddenly, this is some socialist overreach.” 

“We do have to take care of our deficit…As I said before and I want to repeat, as a percentage of our GDP, our discretionary spending — all the things that the Republicans are proposing cutting — is actually lower than it’s been since Dwight Eisenhower. There has not been some massive expansion of social programs, programs that help the poor, environmental programs, education programs. That’s not our problem.” [6] 

Well, it is many millions of Americans’ problem – that’s for sure. Perhaps the Obama team should commission a song-writer to craft a campaign tune titled “Love Me, I’m a Centrist” – an opportunity for the president to unveil his crooning pipes a second time this campaign season. Before doing so, however, they might want to think twice about the wisdom and/or morality of trumpeting their record of NOT initiating “some massive expansion of social programs that help the poor” as millions of Americans run out ammunition in the war on destitution. Two years ago, the number of Americans living in official poverty reached a historic high of 46.2 million. By 2011, 1 in 6 Americans (50 million, a population twice the size of Texas) had no health insurance and 14.5% of Americans households were defined as “food insecure” – as facing difficulties putting enough food on the table. A Census report commissioned by the New York Times in the fall of 2011 showed that 1 in 3 Americans live either in official poverty or in “near poverty,” either officially poor or at less than 150 percent of the poverty level.[7] And CBS News reported last December that “a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income” Half the population – 150 million – is either officially poor (50 million) or living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (100 million).[8] 

Team Obama might also want to consider the wisdom and morality of NOT initiating “some massive expansion …of environmental programs” as it becomes ever clearer that the carbon-driven environmental apocalypse prophesized for some time is unfolding NOW and not in some distant future to be dealt with by “our grandchildren.”[9] 

The Real Polarization that Matters 

For what its worth, Obama was right to tell the AP that Ronald Reagan could not survive the current Republican primary process and that the entire GOP – not just a fringe group of Republicans with “the Tea Party,” for example –  has moved far to the right. The editors of The New York Times put it well in the immediate wake of the disgusting comic opera called the debt crisis last summer, “It is far too simplistic to blame the loose coalition of Republicans known as the Tea Party for the debt-limit debacle. It was not the Tea Party fringe of the Republican Party that dragged the economy to the brink — it was its center. The party has moved so far to the right that there is little difference between fringe and mainstream. “[10] 

But we must NOT pin Washington’s rightward drift on Republicans alone. The whole U.S. party system has moved ever more dangerously to the big business friendly starboard side across the long money-soaked neoliberal era (1972 – 20??). The center of the Democratic Party has moved so far away from its nominal commitment to working people, the poor, and the cause of social equity that the domestic policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama make Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon (Republican presidents at the bloom and apex of the New Deal era) look like social democrats by comparison.[11] The supposed “progressive” and “liberal” Obama can speak without shame of the supposedly noble centrism behind his deficit-watching failure to expand social programs for the poor in a nation where half the population is either poor or near-poor while financial plutocrats gorge on unimaginably grotesque incomes like JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s 2011 “earnings”: $20.8 million total, equivalent to more than $57 K a day[12].

John Dewey noted nearly a century ago that American “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” But, as Noam Chomsky noted last summer, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate” [emphasis added].[13]  Political scientists and pundits regularly bemoan the great supposed great “ideological polarization” between the two different “subdivisions” of the U.S. “Property Party” (to use the terminology of the 1930s commentator Ferdinand Lundberg),[14] but the real polarization that matters most in America’s corporate-managed pseudo-democracy is between the in-power bipartisan elite and the out-of-power populace.[15] 

Team Obama to Wall Street: “Please Pardon Our Pseudo-Populism”

Recent U.S. political history aside, we can be sure that Obama is not about to seriously buck the masters with the bucks, who determine success or failure in the nation’s incredibly expensive elections market. Last February, the progressive political commentator Thomas Frank reports in this month’s Harper’s Magazine (citing Bloomberg News), the president’s campaign manager Jim Messina: “was…dispatched to New York City to meet with representatives of the ‘financial services industry’ and encourage them to chip in. During the meeting….Messina ‘assured’ his audience that the president would not ‘demonize Wall Street as he stresses populist appeals in his re-election campaign. In other words,” Frank comments, “the president is apparently prepared to jettison a large chunk of his party’s legislative and rhetorical tradition.”[16]  

I find the last comment odd. Surely Frank is aware that the dismal dollar Dems have been stripping away whatever claims they might retain to populist progressivism for decades now.[17]  And I hope he knows that the president has been committed to the “jettison[ing]” Frank cites from the beginning of Obama’s political career.[18] 

Operation Co-optation 

There’s something else in Tom Frank’s Harper’s essay that merits  mention – a statement from the obscenely wealth mutual fund baron Foster Freiss to ABC News on the arch-capitalist Rick Santorum’s supposed strengths as a candidate: 

“Fifty-three years old, starts each morning with fifty push-ups, is the grandson of a coal miner, has demonstrated his ability to win blue collar votes by winning in Pennsylvania, which had over one million Democratic registration advantage, and grew up on a Veterans Administration hospital grounds where his father worked, and is a fellow of modest means.”  

As Frank quips, Freiss’s list sounded like “a classified ad…Help Wanted: Working Man with Plutocratic-Friendly Views.” [19]   

Talk about “the [at least attempted] manipulation of populism by elitism.” 

If Hitchens was right about “the essence of American politics,” then the Republicans are going to have a difficult time beating Obama with the hopelessly aristocratic Mitt Romney. The fake-progressive Democrats are already having a field day railing against “Mr. 1%” Romney’s spectacular personal wealth, gained through the arch-parasitic, employment-dismantling machinations of equity capital, and noting that Romney has paid less than 14 percent taxes on more than $40 million in mostly investment-based income over the previous two years  I just don’t see the Republicans being able to give Romney the sort of Joe Six Pack makeover they gave George W. Bush – the eldest dynastic son of a fantastically wealthy and politically connected establishment New England bloodline[20]. But who knows?  The big money political brand-makers are not to be underestimated when it comes to messing with the American electoral mind. 

Even as they smash populist and radical Occupiers with the iron fist of repression and make policy on behalf of the upper bourgeoisie in the White House, the Democrats retain their position in the vanguard of fake-populist co-optation. More then merely identifying their president and their other candidates’ electoral quest with the Occupy Movement’s “99 percent,” Obama-captive Democrats have undertaken a bold new counter-insurgency operation within the world of social movement politics beneath and beyond election spectacles. They have recently unveiled the “99% Spring” – a purported new explosion of direct, non-violent action that claims it will pick up the spirit of Occupy in a major campaign of civil disobedience. Its list of sponsoring organizations is largely a roster of the very establishment trade unions, civil rights groups, “peace” groups (led of course by the fake-left champion and environmental groups that have led the great progressive surrender across the eras of Clinton and Obama. 

The liberal Nation blogger Peter Roghtberg is right to say that “the fact that the cream of the liberal-left establishment is promoting direct action trainings in the six months before a presidential election rather than focusing all its energies on electoral horse race is dramatic testimony to Occupy’s impact.”[21] But that hardly makes the project a welcome development. As the radical California activist and writer Mike King notes on Counterpunch, the 99% Spring “is primarily about co-optation and division, about sucking a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s re-election campaign, watering down its radical politics, and using [activist] trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 ‘good protestors’ to counter the ‘bad protestors’ (who actually rake personal risks and/or have radical politics), to ease the State’s ongoing campaign to pick us off one by one. In the words of’s own campaign director,” King observes, “it is unabashedly and overtly a campaign of clear co-optation.”[22] For my part, I will keep a healthy distance from the tired old establishment “left” dressed in fake rebel’s clothes and I will put more faith and energy in the recently announced and genuinely radical-democratic International Organization for a Participatory Society.[23]

Paul Street’s many books include The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at 


 [1] Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18. 

[2] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Associated Press Luncheon,” Marriot Wardman Park, Washington D.C. (April 3, 2012), reads online at

[3] Probably better on the whole. To quote Noam Chomsky speaking to the Boston Occupy encampment last October, “Today, for the one-tenth of 1 percent of the population who benefited most from these decades of greed and deceit, everything is fine, while for most of the population, real income has stagnated or declined for thirty years…So we have the plutonomy and the precariat: the 1 percent and the 99 percent, in the imagery of the Occupy Movement – not literal numbers, but the right picture” (emphasis added). Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 304. 

[4] Here I must quote (yet again) the brilliant left and black political scientist and commentator Adolph Reed, Jr.’s observation on the unnamed Obama at the very beginning of the future president’s career in elected office more than 18 years ago: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substance.” Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000). 

[5] Obama, “Remarks at the Associated Press.” 

[6] Obama, “Remarks.”

[7] Jason DeParle et al., “Older, Suburban, and Struggling,” New York Times, Nov.18, 2011.

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

[9] For more details and sources, see Paul Street, “Less Than Zero: the One Percent, the President, and the Fate of the Earth in Dewey and Durban’s Dark Shadows,” ZNet (December 9, 2011), read at 

[10] New York Times editors, “Race to the Right,” New York Times, August 6, 2011. 

[11] Against the tendency of political scientists and pundits to blame the Republicans and Democrats alike and equally for the much bemoaned “polarization of American politics,” the liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted five years ago that “The story of political polarization isn’t a matter of both parties moving to the extreme. It’s hard to make the case that Democrats have moved significantly to the left. Bill Clinton arguably governed not just to the right of Jimmy Carter, but to the right of Richard Nixon. On the other side, it’s obvious that the Republicans have moved to the right: Just compare the hard-line conservatism of George W. Bush with the moderation of Gerald Ford.” Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 5. 

[12] Kile Stock, “Jobs Report: $57,000 — Jamie Dimon’s Pay Per Day Last Year,” Wall Street Journal Blog (April 8, 2011) at 

[13] Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011. 

[14] Lundberg is quoted in Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008, 13. 

[15] See Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What it Will Take to win it Back (New York: John Wiley&Sons, 2006); Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 205-250. 

[16] Thomas Frank, “It’s a Rich Man’s World,” Harper’s Magazine (April, 2012), 27. 

[17] Frank could consult his own widely cited book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan,  2004), 242-243, where he argues that the Democratic Party lost “places likes Shawnee and Wichita” as much as Republicans won them because of the Democrats’ corporate-funded determination to take workers’ economic issues “off the table” and to “emphasize their friendliness to business interests.”  Franks calls this “the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the ‘New Politics’ days of the early seventies” [emphasis added]. 

[18] Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). 

[19] Frank, “Rich Man’s World,” 26. 

[20] Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (New York: Viking, 2004).

[21] Peter Rothberg, “The 99 Percent Spring,” The Nation blog, April 4, 2012. 

[22] Mike King, “Counter-Insurgency as Insurgency,” Counterpunch, April 5, 2012.

[23] IOSP –, about which Noam Chomsky says the following: “Hardly a day goes by when I do not hear appeals – often laments – from people deeply concerned about the travails of human existence and the fate of the world, desperately eager to do something about what they rightly perceive to be intolerable and ominous, feeling helpless because each individual effort, however dedicated, seems to merely chip away at a mountain, placing band-aids on a cancer, never reaching to the sources of needless suffering and the threats of much worse,. It’s an understandable reaction, and can too often lead to despair and resignation. We all know the only answer, driven home by experience and history, and by simple reflection on the realities of the world: join together to construct and clarify long-term visions and goals, along with direct engagement and activism shaped by these guidelines and contributing to a deepening our understanding of what we hope to achieve. But the formula, while accurate enough, does not respond to the pleas. What is missing is concrete proposals as to how to proceed. IOPS strikes the right chords, and if the opportunities it opens are pursued with sufficient energy and participation, could carry us a long way towards unifying the many initiatives here and around the world and molding them into a powerful and effective force.”

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By | 2012-04-13T12:28:09+00:00 April 13th, 2012|Articles|